The Dangerous Church – Lenten Season 2023
“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. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.
Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teachings she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 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. 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.
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). Only hold on to what you have until I come.
To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations – “He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery” – just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelations 2: 18-29 NIV).
Revelations – Day 6 “Letter to Thyatira – The Libertine Church”
Can you imagine going to church on a Sunday morning only to hear a message from somebody named Jezebel, “who calls herself a prophetess” (Rev. 2:20 NIV)? Perhaps the Gentiles didn’t all make the connection but anyone who knew the Old Testament would certainly run away. But perhaps that wasn’t really her name and Jesus is giving her the title of “Jezebel” as a judgment on her teachings.
The letter to Thyatira begins like all of the others with a reference to the vision of the risen, heavenly Savior.
“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 NIV).
Thyatira was originally founded as a frontier military post but became more of a trade outpost and, at this point in time, was the home to a large number of trade guilds. One of special note was the Purple Cloth Company of Thyatira and none other than Lydia, the first convert by Paul in Philippi, is described as a “dealer in purple cloth” and came from Thyatira (Acts 16:14 NIV).
As we have seen in the other letters, the description of the heavenly Christ is chosen for special meaning to the situation in each church. For those in Pergamum, facing the imperial justice of the proconsul who wielded the sword of punishment, the double-edged sword of Jesus is described. For those in Smyrna, facing immediate persecution and death, the description is one of a Savior “who died and came to life again” (Rev. 2:8b NIV). For those in Ephesus, who faced leadership issues, the description is of a Savior who is protecting them and is with them and all the other churches in the region. Here in Thyatira, it is the same.
In Thyatira, there is a general blindness to an internal rot that must be rooted out of the church at all costs. The description is one of a Savior “whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (Rev. 2:18 NIV). Eyes that can penetrate any lie or deception and feet that are a strong and unyielding foundation upon the earth – the cross of Calvary and the resurrection from the grave. This is what they needed to hear because they were facing a most difficult enemy within. Jezebel.
“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 NIV).
In comparison with the other letters, these are kind and positive words. This is a good church doing good deeds. They are actively serving the people around them with love and faith and are persevering in their work. In fact, Jesus commends them for “doing more than you did at first.” But perhaps that is what makes the situation so tragic. Good people are being perverted by a pernicious lie about our spiritual freedom. And apparently by someone in a leadership position as a “prophetess.”
“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: 20a NIV).
There appears to be a specific situation involved with actual people who need to be corrected or disciplined but it is also a common problem in the church in almost any age. We will start by going back to the Old Testament story of Jezebel and Elijah. We must go back to the 9th century B.C. to find our hero battling for the heart of the people of Israel. The Kingdom was divided into the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. Judah was largely faithful to the worship of Yahweh while the north was openly syncretistic and open to Baal worship. Things would come to a climax during the reign of Ahab and there was a deep rotten core in the leadership of Ahab named Jezebel.
Not that Ahab was any pushover either. “Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel before him” (I Kings 16: 30-33 NIV).
And we haven’t even gotten to Jezebel yet.
Josephus, the first-century historian, refers to Ethbaal as a king-priest over Tyre and Sidon at the time of Ahab and apparently, Ahab married Jezebel while his father was still king. At their marriage, he would have participated in the worship of Melqart, the local manifestation of Baal in Tyre and Sidon. No doubt, it was Jezebel who brought the worship of this Baal to Samaria and Ahab was willing to build a temple to Baal in his new capital city built by his father.
Most people know the story of Elijah, how he miraculously supported a widow during the three-year drought the LORD brought upon the kingdom of Israel, how Elijah brought rain to the land, how he engineered a showdown between Yahweh and Baal on Mt. Carmel and fire came from heaven to consume the sacrifice. It was a glorious time of renewal and revelation for the people who were there.
But most people don’t know that Jezebel killed many of the prophets of Yahweh (I Kings 18:4 NIV) and that she was actively trying to supplant Yahweh worship with the Baal worship of her own people. Most people don’t realize that on Mt. Carmel Elijah killed most of the Baal prophets when the fire came from heaven to prove that Yahweh was the God of Israel. In fact, the Bible tells us that when Ahab returned to his palace and told Jezebel what had happened, she sent a message immediately to Elijah threatening to kill him for murdering all of her prophets.
And how did Elijah, this powerful prophet of the LORD who saw with his own eyes the fire come out of heaven, who could perform miracles and wonders, how did he respond to this threat? “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life” (I Kings 19:3 NIV). He hid in a cave, got depressed, and “he prayed that he might die” (I Kings 19:4 NIV). Some people just attribute this reaction to the “letdown” that comes after every mountain-top experience of the power of God but that doesn’t do the situation justice.
Ahab was king and he certainly had power, but he was no fool. He saw for himself the power of Yahweh on Mt. Carmel. Although he listened to his wife and brought Baal worship to Israel, he saw it more as a blending of the two forms of worship into one. Jezebel was another story. She was actively involved in destroying Yahweh worship by killing the prophets of Yahweh. This had been going on for a while and was getting worse. Now Elijah had killed all of her prophets in one glorious moment demonstrating the power of Yahweh over Baal. Jezebel would not be pleased.
An angel of the LORD appears to him and gives him food and encourages him to travel to Mt. Horeb, the mountain of God in the desert. God appears to him there and asks him a simple question. “What are you doing here Elijah?” His answer is a great summary of the problem up to that point. “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (I Kings 19:9b,10 NIV).
He was referring, of course, to Jezebel and all of the people and power that she had amassed to destroy Yahweh worship in Israel. God reminds Elijah that he has reserved “seven thousand in Israel- all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him” (I Kings 19:18 NIV). God always has his “remnant” and Elijah is not correct in thinking that he is alone and the last one fighting for the LORD.
One comment makes the relationship between Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, clear. “There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the LORD drove out before Israel” (I Kings 21:25,26 NIV). He was “urged on by Jezebel his wife.” Elijah prophesied that “dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel” (I Kings 21:23 NIV) and that is exactly what happened.
The point is that calling someone a Jezebel from then on meant that they were in a position of power and leadership but actively promoting false worship and working against the plans of God. This woman in the church of Thyatira, whatever her real name was, called herself a “prophetess” and the people “tolerated” or accepted her and her teachings.
And what exactly were her teachings about?
On the face of it, the same as the Nicolaitans since the Bible talks about “sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (Rev. 2:20 NIV) which are bad enough in and of themselves, but we know that they are code words for emperor worship. But there is also something different about this Jezebel since she is said to “mislead” the people with “her teachings.”
This is something more than a political debate on how best to interact with pagan society as Christians. This is more than a misunderstanding, perhaps willfully so, of the need to confront a totalitarian state that was actively seeking to destroy the church whether they were aware of it or not. This was a deeper problem still.
Apparently, she taught a form of Christian freedom that promoted “Satan’s so-called deep secrets” (Rev. 2: 24 NIV). This appears to be one of the early forms of Gnosticism which was already beginning to invade the church and would become a full-blown problem in the second century. Gnosticism taught that to defeat evil, one must experience evil deeply. It was the only way to gain the understanding that was necessary to storm the gates of hell and overcome it. But it was a bald-faced lie.
Christian freedom is not the freedom to sin but rather the freedom of love, freedom from the requirements of Old Testament religious ceremony, and the freedom of the cross from the requirements of the law. Even Paul was horrified by this antinomian attitude towards sin. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Rom. 6:1,2 NIV). We do not defeat Satan with some sort of specialized knowledge based on an experience of evil. We defeat Satan with the knowledge of the gospel based on an experience of grace. We defeat evil with the weapons of love.
We are not the ones who enter into Satan’s stronghold to bind the strong man (Mark 3:27 NIV). That was the job of Jesus, to enter the gates of hell and set the prisoners free. But he didn’t experience evil deeply on the cross, rather he experienced the wrath of God upon evil. He became sin for us, but he was without sin. He suffered at the hands of sinful men, but he responded with love and grace. Of all people, Jesus was “free” to choose his path and he chose the path of loving obedience to his Father.
What arrogance to think that we can defeat evil with our own strength and understanding, that we must experience evil, participate in it, and actually perform it to see what it is like as if we were immune to the wiles of the Evil One or cannot be perverted into “Baal worship” or led astray by our own evil desires. It is the arrogance of this kind of liberalism or libertine attitude that is its greatest flaw, but it also fundamentally misunderstands the gospel and the power that is ours when we walk in the Spirit.
Christian freedom is rooted in love not understanding or specialized experiences. It is true that God uses the “wounded healer” to minister to others who have suffered the same kind of evil. Recovering alcoholics are the best sponsors for others in the first steps of recovery. But the keyword is recovery. What empowers your ministry is not the experience of evil but rather the experience of overcoming evil with good, of being redeemed from evil by the cross. And to say that one should deeply experience evil so that the grace of God might be more deeply felt and understood is sheer arrogance by sinful men.
And that is what was happening in Thyatira. The church appeared to be strong. It was doing even more than they were at the start. Their love and faith in service to others were noted. But there was a Jezebel among them in a position of leadership who was teaching people that they had a freedom in Christ that made them invulnerable to evil and allowed them to do anything, go anywhere, charge in where angels feared to tread, and nothing would harm them. They were free to experience evil and not be overcome by evil in the process. There were no consequences to your actions or participation in evil. You are invincible in Christ. Not.
In other words, you could even participate in sexual immorality and eat food sacrificed to idols (code for emperor worship) and there would be no consequences to your actions. In the story of Jezebel and Elijah, when God reminded Elijah that he still had his remnant, look at how he describes them. “I reserve seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him” (I Kings 19:18 NIV). He didn’t say that he had seven thousand who actually did bow down to Baal and whose mouths actually did kiss him but in their Christian freedom they were not influenced, or they were not sincere in their worship of Baal, and in their heart, they were still faithful to Yahweh. It doesn’t work like that.
Remember that Jesus is preparing his churches for the trial of suffering and death to come so that their witness unto death and their weapons of love can be used by God to turn the Roman world upside down. This is not the time to conform but rather be transformed by the gospel (Rom. 12:2 NIV).
What Jezebel was suggesting was the complete opposite of being a “true and faithful witness.” It was in full agreement with the proconsul who would suggest that a bit of incense and a prayer of loyalty was a small price to pay for your freedom and your life. And to suggest that it was your right in Christian freedom to participate in evil and pagan worship and that it wouldn’t affect your heart or your relationship with God was pure heresy.
What did Jesus have to say about this situation?
First, he would deal with Jezebel, the prophetess, herself, and her followers. Then he would address the rest of the church.
“I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 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. 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 NIV).
Already the time for repentance has passed. The time for judgment has come. This is serious business and Jezebel has apparently hardened her heart with justifications and rationalizations which make her “unwilling” to change. It was time for discipline to be applied. “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (Rev. 3:19 NIV) Jesus says in the Letter to the Laodiceans. In all of the other letters, Jesus rebukes the churches but here he actually starts the disciplinary measures that are needed to correct the situation. Jezebel was leading the church astray and needed to be stopped.
The very fact that she would be disciplined and not just killed outright indicates that she may have still been a believer. We aren’t sure. What we do know is that in the story of Jezebel and Elijah, whenever Ahab repented even just a little bit, God demonstrated restraint and put off his judgment sometime into the future. If Ahab as the most evil of the Kings of Israel could receive mercy when he repents, even this Jezebel was given the same opportunity.
She would be “cast on a bed of suffering” and even those followers “who commit adultery with her” will suffer “intensely.” We don’t know what this suffering entails. It could be simply a disease of some sort that was very painful, or it could have been something more in line with the nature of her offense. We don’t know.
Perhaps, after all of her teaching on their freedom to participate in emperor worship without consequence to their souls or their walk with God, he allowed them to suffer the antagonism of the populace, the loneliness of prison, the “experience” of standing before the proconsul and having to account for themselves as Christians. Perhaps. It wouldn’t surprise me.
Jesus even mentions that he “will strike her children dead.” It is unlikely that these are her real children if she even had any, and more likely to be her closest followers, her strongest allies, her most dedicated believers.
In other words, it may be time to demonstrate that we are not immune to evil or the suffering and pain that come from persecution and death. We cannot walk through life unharmed and to “slander angels,” even the Devil, was not advisable. Peter wrote about this very situation. He said, “This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not heap abuse on such beings when bringing judgment on them from the Lord” (2 Peter 2:10,11 ESV).
Doesn’t that seem to describe this very situation with Jezebel in the church at Thyatira?
It makes me think of those in the modern church who make demands on God to fulfill His promises, who expect to be healed from every disease, and who claim in prayer a power and ability to overcome any adversity. Their arrogance is their downfall. We overcome with faith and love, not claims on God, or demands against the Devil as if we were the ones with the power. It is Christ in us who gives us strength (Rom. 8:37 NIV) not our position in the heavenlies, or our power in the Spirit.
Position and power belong to him and to the degree that we are found in him, to that degree, he will protect us eternally without necessarily saving us from suffering and pain and death in this life. The priority of God is not to save us from harm but to use the harm that evil brings and transform it into a living witness of the power of God within which He can then use to transform hearts.
And if you are a bit shocked at how Jesus handles this prophetess called Jezebel, and you wonder whether he is being too harsh, think again. This is a message not just for her or for the church in Thyatira but for all the churches, including yours and mine today.
“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. 2:23 NIV).
The final judgment at the end of the age is not actually the responsibility of Jesus but of the Father. He is the judge of all creation. When we talk about a judgment based on our deeds, no one can stand, and everyone will be found wanting. When we talk about how we can be saved from that judgment, we are talking about taking refuge in Christ who saves us from the second death. So, this judgment of Jezebel and her followers is not about final judgment.
Jesus is reigning from his throne beside the Father in this age of grace. His judgments have to do with the gospel and our “deeds” that either hinder or help the spread of the gospel. He has full authority from his Father, but he exercises it according to his purpose. His “eyes are like blazing fire” and can penetrate the mind and motives of his people. All of the churches need to know, even today, that he will rebuke and discipline anyone and everyone as necessary to accomplish his goal of spreading the gospel to the whole world and present a people, holy and pure, to his Father from every nation, people, and tongue.
“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). Only hold on to what you have until I come” (Rev. 2:24,25 NIV).
Apparently, the discipline of Jezebel and her followers would be enough. These were good people who were working hard in the service of their Lord and Master. Once Jezebel was dealt with, they only needed to continue what they were already doing. But listen to the reward promised to them.
“To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations – “He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery” – just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2: 26-28 NIV).
This is a promise for “him who overcomes” but what exactly is it that they have to overcome in this situation? The teaching of Jezebel comes to mind. The temptation to think that they have the freedom and authority to “beard the Devil in his own den.”
Jesus adds words he doesn’t use in any other letter when he adds, “and does my will to the end.” You are not in charge, he is saying. I am. It is not your will that matters but my will. Don’t just think that you can participate in emperor worship and get away with it, or fake it, or not really mean it. This is the moment of your witness, the moment that everything has been leading up to, the moment when your words and actions will become eternally significant. Don’t throw it all away in the arrogance of some unfounded authority.
This is the sin of Judas. He wanted to control Jesus, to force him to fulfill his destiny to destroy the Roman Empire with the power of his divinity. This was a man who would not let Jesus lead, he would not listen to the will of the Messiah who would define his own ministry. The sin of Judas was rooted in arrogance and unbelief and produced a false authority, placing himself above the wishes of the one, he himself, claimed to be the Son of God. No doubt he believed it, but it didn’t change him. He never became a disciple, a follower, but rather the manager, the promoter, the one in charge of the march of destiny. He wanted to destroy Rome, but Jesus wanted to transform it.
Jezebel was the same. She committed the sin of Judas in thinking that they could deceive the Roman authorities, somehow fool Satan into submission with some secret knowledge, and perhaps even change Roman policy through collaboration, deceit, and cooperation. Who knows? But that was not the “will” of Jesus. It was not his plan for the transformation of the world. For those who would let him lead, who would let him be the head of the church and “the ruler of the kings of the earth,” there would be a reward.
If it is “authority” that you want, you can get as much “authority” as you can handle if you do “my will to the end.” In fact, you will share in the same authority that Jesus has from his Father. It is not authority over the Devil directly, whom the Father has ordained to be free to roam the earth until he is cast into the lake of fire. Nor is it over the evil forces in the heavenly realms, but rather over “the nations.”
You will “rule” them (or literally “shepherd” them) together with Jesus and you will have the power to “dash them to pieces like pottery.” Do you want to attack the works of the Devil? Do you want to stop power-hungry totalitarian states from destroying people and the work of God? Do you want to make a real difference in this epic battle against evil?
Then stop playing games. Stop pretending that it is about military power, or elections, or even about charities and philanthropy. It is about embracing the power of God’s perspective on what the real problem is and how the cross of Christ has the power to transform people, systems, and cultures from the inside out through the living witness of those who would pay any cost to bring the love of God to bear upon the suffering of the world and confront the forces of evil with the only power that they cannot withstand. This is the power of the cross and this is God’s plan to save mankind from the evil they have gotten into bed with.
And just in case you think that all is doom and gloom and desperate fighting from door-to-door one living witness at a time, one confrontation with evil using the weapons of love at a time, there is something more that Jesus wants to say. “I will also give him the morning star” (Rev. 2:28 NIV). We know that he is talking about himself (Rev. 22:16 NIV) but there is also a note of hope for the future. “Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning,” says the Psalmist (Psalm 30:5 NIV).
Martyrdom is not a game. Becoming a living martyr is not for the faint of heart. Radical discipleship is needed, and it is not about worldly liberties or authority over the Devil. It is not about experiencing and participating in sin and evil to demonstrate that you can handle it, deceive it, or transform it. It isn’t about your position in Christ or your power in the Holy Spirit.
It is about your loving obedience in following the leading of Christ. To overcome in the same way that he overcame, not “by power, not by might but by my Spirit says the Lord” (Zech. 4:6 NIV). Not by deception, not by pretending, but with weapons of love in one hand and the truth of your witness in the other.
This is the way of the cross, and we must walk in it.
The Desert Warrior