Sleeping With the Enemy

Revelation 2:18-29

To the angel of the church in Thyatira write.” (Revelation 2:18).

It was not exactly a vacation spot.
You wouldn’t go there on a honeymoon.
If you went there at all, you were usually just passing through.

Of the seven cities of Revelation 2-3, Thyatira was the least important.
And that’s where we need to begin.

To help us think about Thyatira, perhaps we should find some modern-day counterparts. For Ephesus we could think of a city like Dallas, bold and brash with lots of commerce and lots of religion. For suffering Smyrna, think of a city like Cairo where the Coptic Christians are under assault from the Muslim majority. For Pergamum the closest equivalent might be Washington, D.C. with its worldly power and marble monuments.

Of the seven cities of Revelation 2-3, Thyatira was the least important.

What, then, would correspond to Thyatira? Perhaps we should think of a union town like Flint, Michigan. Flint is to Chicago as Thyatira was to Ephesus. The city was known for its high-quality bronze used to produce weapons that when properly polished gleamed like gold. It was also known for producing cloth dyed red or purple. Acts 16:14 tells of Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth from Thyatira, who met Paul when he came to Philippi. Economically the town was dominated by various trade guilds that mixed their trade with paganism and immorality. If you were a carpenter or a potter or a metalworker, you joined a trade guild that met at the local pagan temple. Along with the regular trade guild business came the associated idol worship, drunkenness, and rampant sexual perversion. It all came as one big package. You couldn’t say, “I want to be in the guild, but I’ll skip the idol worship part.” That wouldn’t go in Thyatira.

Perhaps it is ironic that the church in the least important city should receive the longest message from our Lord. Small churches matter to Jesus. His eyes behold the true faith of the tribal church on a remote Indonesian island, and he sees the faithful saints huddled behind shuttered windows and locked doors in North Korea.

Small churches matter to Jesus.

Let no one say, “My church is too small for Jesus.” In his eyes there are no small churches. You cannot find the slightest word in the New Testament to make you think that Jesus favors the megachurches of the world. Though big churches garner most of the publicity, by and large the work of Jesus goes forward in churches of less than 100 people. This is true in America, and it is certainly true around the world.

Do not despise the day of small things. Our Lord loves small churches just as much as he loves big churches.

I. Jesus Knows the Truth About the Church.

The message begins with a description of Jesus Christ. This letter comes from

the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze (v. 18).

This is the only time in Revelation where Christ is called the “Son of God." In our pluralistic society this is the most divisive claim we can make. We believe that from all eternity God has existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To say Jesus is the “Son of God” means that when we worship him, we are truly worshiping God himself. So this is God speaking to the church at Thyatira. His eyes blazing like fire are the eyes that see all things and overlook nothing. The feet like burnished bronze come in judgment over those who oppose him. This verse tells us that we’d better pay attention to what Jesus says. It’s like when a pilot tells the passengers, “Buckle up. We’re about to hit some turbulence."

To say Jesus is the “Son of God” means that when we worship him, we are truly worshiping God himself.

II. Jesus Praises the Good in the Church.

But first we get the good news. In many ways Thyatira is the best of the four churches we have studied so far. Look at what Jesus says about it:

I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first (v. 19).

This church has the good works of Ephesus along with the love Ephesus lacked. It has the perseverance of Smyrna and the good theology of the majority of the church at Pergamum. Jesus even says, “You are doing more than you did at first.” I don’t think we should read this and think, “It must have been an extremely busy church." I doubt our Lord means to commend a crowded church calendar. I think he means that the congregation itself was growing in faith, growing in love, growing in hope, and that growth was seen in the way they worshiped and served and reached out to others. 

To Ephesus, Jesus said, “You were strong but now are getting weaker.”
To Thyatira, he says, “You are good and getting better.” That’s high praise from our Lord.

It’s wonderful to be part of a united church that is growing in love and knowledge and zeal for Christ.

Whatever else we can say about Thyatira, the Lord clearly says that they were still making progress spiritually. It’s wonderful to be part of a united church that is growing in love and knowledge and zeal for Christ. So our Lord has high praise for this church that was advancing for the gospel in an unlikely place.

III. Jesus Exposes Evil in the Church.

And it is that high praise that makes the rest of this passage so unsettling. Somehow in the midst of their growth they had allowed an ungodly woman to rise to a place of enormous spiritual influence:

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 (v. 20).

There are many mysteries here that the text does not explain. Who was this woman and how did she rise to prominence in an otherwise excellent congregation? Our Lord here clearly refers to a real person even though the name Jezebel is likely not her real name but an allusion to the wicked wife of King Ahab first mentioned in 1 Kings 16:29-33. The short version of the story goes like this: Jezebel was the daughter of a pagan king named Ethbaal. When she married Ahab, king of Israel, she exerted such an evil influence that the entire nation turned to Baal worship. Even though the spiritual tone of the nation was not good to start with, under Jezebel’s influence evil was exalted and enthroned in the land so that Ahab was more evil than all the kings who came before him. The crafty Jezebel became a symbol for a seductive form of evil that not only allowed for idolatry but promoted it, and not only allowed adultery but encouraged and rewarded it.

Such a toxic mix will soon destroy a nation or a church.

But how could such a woman come to power in the church at Thyatira? I think the answer is in the word “prophetess.” By claiming to speak for God, she gained credibility with gullible, untaught Christians. One could imagine that such a woman combined a powerful personality with persuasive speech, a seductive smile, and withering scorn for her critics. She was no doubt clever, quick on her feet, slick in her presentation, and extremely dangerous.

With Jezebel you could have it all.

With Jezebel you could have it all:

Salvation.
Jesus.
Heaven.
Idol worship.
Friendship with the world.
Guilt-free sex.

And you got to do all of it under the guise of being a “good Christian.” No doubt her followers filled the pews at Thyatira. Perhaps they sang in the choir. Some of them no doubt derided the Bible teachers at Thyatira as narrow-minded fundamentalist killjoys.

It worked for the first Jezebel in the Old Testament.
It worked for her namesake in Thyatira.

I pause here to offer a solemn warning. Be wary of those who advertise themselves as “prophets” and “prophetesses.” It is one thing to be a Bible teacher or a pastor, but it is something else to claim to receive special messages from God. Anyone who says such things takes upon themselves a fearful responsibility. It is one thing to say, “God has said this in Romans 8.” It is another thing to claim that a dream or a vision you have comes from the Almighty.

In putting the matter this way, I do not wish to pass judgment on any particular person. But there are many false prophets in the land

Be wary of those who advertise themselves as “prophets” and “prophetesses.”

We have the Word of God. Is that not enough for us?

Yet another question remains. How could such a woman be tolerated in such a fine church? Perhaps she was related to one of the church leaders and that gave her cover for her sin. Perhaps the leaders feared that if they confronted her, she would split the church. Perhaps they hoped that by tolerating her, she would eventually go away. Who knows? They may have thought that it was a mark of grace to “accept her” in the hopes of reaching her for the Lord. I suspect it was some combination of all those factors.

But whatever the reason was, the church had gravely sinned by not dealing with this evil woman. It is frightening to consider that this sort of thing may happen in an otherwise strong congregation. Lots of well-meaning people want to go to “St. Jezebel’s Church of What’s Happening Now” because it’s so much fun. You can go to church and believe what you want and do what you want.

IV. Jesus Judges Evil in 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 (vv. 21-23).

When Jesus says, “I gave her time to repent,” he perhaps means that the church leaders had confronted her about her sinful behavior and she did not respond. While it is true that the patience of God is meant to lead us to repentance, it is also true that God’s patience has a limit.

Many want to go to “St. Jezebel’s Church of What’s Happening Now” because it’s so much fun. 

He will not wait forever.
If we persist in sin, judgment day will come at last.

The one piece of good news is that her followers still have time to repent.

Jezebel is beyond redemption.
Her followers are not.

But the bell that tolls for her will toll for them too. Let no one reading these words be deceived. You cannot continue in sexual sin forever without facing the judgment of God.

In this case the judgment is spelled out:

You cannot continue in sexual sin forever without facing the judgment of God. 

First, there will be intense suffering (v. 22).
Second, her followers will die (v. 23a).
Third, all the churches will know that God is serious about sin in the church (v. 23b).

These harsh words must not be watered down. Let those who promote free sex, casual sex, hooking up, sleeping around, premarital sex, fornication, filthy talk, child pornography, prostitution, adultery, sexual experimentation, homosexuality, bisexuality, and all other forms of sexual sin hear this message from heaven:

Be sure your sin will find you out.

What you do in secret will be shouted from the housetops.
What you do in the darkness is seen as if it were done at midday.

V. Jesus Encourages His Faithful Followers.

Verses 24-25 contain Christ’s call to the faithful remnant at Thyatira:

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.

The phrase “so-called deep secrets” gives us a clue to what was going on. Jezebel enticed her followers by promising them knowledge and experience that came through some combination of pagan ritual plus Christian symbolism plus sexual experimentation, all under the banner of learning “deep secrets” that other people do not know.

Be sure your sin will find you out.

False prophets love “deep secrets.”
It’s almost irresistible.
We love it when someone says, “Let me tell you a secret.”

When you cloak the “deep secrets” with a veneer of religiosity, it becomes even more attractive. Why be stuck with the Bible when you can enter into a world of direct messages, omens, signs and prophecies that give you insight into the “hidden world” that regular Christians don’t have?

Note that Jesus in this case doesn’t tell them to cast the woman out of the church. Evidently Jezebel is so deeply embedded in the life of the church that Christ will take care of her personally. This presumably means he will come in some form of physical judgment leading to her death and to the death of her followers.

False prophets love “deep secrets."

Remember Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).
Remember those who got drunk at the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28-30).

Jesus has only one command to his faithful followers: Hold on!

Don’t give into her seductive schemes.
Don’t join those who follow her teachings.

Sometimes godliness is measured by holding on when it would be easier to give up.

VI. Jesus Promises to Share His Victory With Us.

Here is the promise Christ makes to those who hold on in Thyatira:

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 (vv. 26-28).

Those who remain faithful will one day reign with Christ on the earth. They will share with him in his coming kingdom that will spread across the globe. Two thousand years ago the world crucified Jesus. But one day he will rule the world with an iron scepter as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Sometimes godliness is measured by holding on when it would be easier to give up.

If we are faithful, we will share in his victory.

And we will know him deeply and personally for he is the true “morning star” that lights up all of heaven.

Starving on the Inside

Before I close this message, let’s consider the implications of this passage for the 21st-century. No one disputes that we live in a sex-saturated society. We glorify sex and talk about it so much that it almost bores us. But rampant sex is only a symptom of a much deeper problem.

We are starving on the inside.

A starving man will eat anything you put in front of him.
He’ll eat food that will kill him in the end.

A starving man will eat anything you put in front of him.

Why is pornography such a huge business on the Internet? It’s a matter of supply and demand. People make millions off pornography because it offers a temporary fix for the inner emptiness we cannot satisfy.

When Vic Pentz preached on this passage (“Sex: Sacred and Profane,” January 28, 2007), he explained why God’s way is always better than the world’s way:

When it comes to matters sexual, less is more. When it comes to love, it’s less experience that’s desirable. How romantic is it when someone says, “I know so much; let me show you all the stuff I’ve learned.” This is one area where going pro is not a plus. It is far more romantic to be a stumbling, bumbling amateur in matters of love.

Then he offers this illustration that makes it clear:

When you think about an orchestra, can you imagine a musician saying, “You’re not going to tie me down my whole life to playing the violin. I’ve got to play the tuba some nights and some nights a clarinet or oboe and, of course, I’m going to go through my trombone phase.” You guarantee you will never be a virtuoso- and you will always be mediocre - until you give yourself to one totally and completely and devotedly- to one and only one for the rest of your life.

Though many have tried, no one has ever improved on God’s plan for sexual happiness: One man with one woman, faithful to each other for a lifetime.

When it comes to love, it’s less experience that’s desirable.

Everything else is a cheap counterfeit.

We’ve got too many Christians who are “going through a trombone phase” with their sexual experimentation. And there is always a Jezebel out there ready to talk to us, ready to listen to our problems, offering a cheap and easy and quick satisfaction. If necessary, she can quote Scripture while you sleep with her.

Beware of Jezebel! She has a host of modern-day sons and daughters. She’ll take your body and your soul and then she’ll lead you straight to hell.

There is no such thing as casual sex.
There is no such thing as a guilt-free one-night stand.

There is no such thing as casual sex.

God wired us so that we would find our deepest sexual fulfillment inside the boundary of marriage between one man and one woman. Sex starts not with a physical act but with a relationship that leads to a commitment that makes a covenant before God that creates a “marriage bed” that God delights to honor (Hebrews 13:4). We honor God when we honor the holy estate of marriage and the physical union of a husband and wife.

We ought to teach our children that when God created sexual desire, he also created the proper place where it can be fully enjoyed. To do that we must also teach our children the last half of Hebrews 13:4, preferably in the King James Version:

But whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.

Whoremongers. You don’t hear that word very often.

Modern translations use other words like “fornicators” or “sexually immoral,” but I think “whoremongers” gives it a distinctly evil sound, which is what we need to hear.

God has no use for whoremongers.
And he has no use for churches that excuse them.

Sex starts not with a physical act but with a relationship that leads to a commitment.

Let’s not miss the main point. God takes sexual sin seriously. He judges those who practice it, he judges those who promote it, and he judges those who tolerate it, laugh at it, or make light of it.

This sort of message is not very popular. Let’s keep the lines sharp and clear between the church and the world in the realm of sexual ethics. Let the world do as it will. Left to itself, the world always chooses the path of self-indulgence. But it is the church’s job to shine the pure light of God’s truth in the midst of the prevailing darkness. If the church lives like the world, why would the world ever want to be part of the church? Any doctrine that makes it easy to sin, any doctrine that redefines sin, any doctrine that makes sin less sinful comes straight from hell.

Saved After Sexual Sin

What, then, do we say to those who have made repeated mistakes in the sexual area? Is there grace for them too? Could Jezebel herself have been saved? Could such an evil woman have found forgiveness? We aren’t left to wonder about that. Look at what Jesus said in verse 21:

I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.

Evidently Jezebel preferred her version of sex plus idolatry to doing the hard work of repentance before the Lord. She had her chance but she was unwilling to repent so for her there was nothing left but judgment. But we find in that solemn statement the hope of the gospel.

If the church lives like the world, why would the world ever want to be part of the church? 

If you are willing, you can be changed.
If you are willing, you can be made clean.
If you are willing, you can have a new start.
If you are willing, your sins can be washed away.

We are all saved the same way, by the free grace of God. To those who are scarred by wrong choices in the past, if you are willing, you can be forgiven and made clean. You may still live with certain consequences of your past, but you can have the burden of guilt lifted from your heart.

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Think of it this way.
You can have Jezebel or you can have Jesus, but you can’t have them both.
Which do you want?

You can have Jezebel or you can have Jesus.

You can have the cheap thrills of the world and feel sick to your stomach the next morning. Or you can have Jesus now, a new life now, forgiveness now, real pleasure now, and you will one day rise to shine like the Morning Star.

If you want Jesus, you must turn your back on Jezebel and turn your heart over to the Lord. Give to him all that you are, including the sins that stain your past, trust in him as your Lord and Savior. Come to Christ just as you are, and he will never turn you away.

He loves you.
He came from heaven to save you.
He died on the cross for you.
He invites you to come to him.

Will you come?
A new life awaits those who say “Yes” to Jesus.
But you’ll never know until you come to him.

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