When Holiness and Tolerance Collide

Revelation 2:18-29

February 25, 2024

Lead Pastor Dr. Timothy Melton

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Have you ever dreamed about climbing Mt. Everest? If you were going to climb Mt. Everest you would need to find yourself a Sherpa. The Sherpas are one of the native Tibetan ethnic groups, from Mongolian origin, who have traditionally lived on the southern slopes of the Himalayas in the most mountainous regions of Nepal.

The term “Sherpa” eventually became commonly used as the term for climbing guides who led people up Mt. Everest, since most of the guides were ethnic Sherpas. Sherpas are people who know the mountain, have the expertise, have the experience, are aware of the dangers, and are physically accustomed to the altitude and the weather. 

Without them, even the best prepared climber would not be able to overcome the death-defying trek to the peak of Mt. Everest. 

In some ways, in these first chapters of the book of Revelation, Jesus is serving as a spiritual Sherpa for seven churches. Each church is facing its unique struggles from the cultures around them and the doubts within them. Jesus has come in this vision to the Apostle John to send a message to all of these churches. Jesus knows theirs struggles, and brings His resources to bear on their situations so that they can overcome. 

That is the role of Jesus in this first part of the book of Revelation. 

The book of Revelation is a book of overcoming, and when we look back at their time in history, the Christians were needing to overcome all that was coming against them. Christ came as their High Priest who sympathizes with their struggle, persecution and temptation and gives them all that they need to overcome.

Positionally, they were already overcomers in Christ, now the churches sought to practically overcome all that was coming against them. 

In Revelation 2:18-29 Jesus is addressing the church in the city of Thyatira. Thyatira was located in the center of a strategic valley about 40 miles from Pergamum, which we discussed in previous verses. Thyatira was on a large trade route that was crowded with business from Asia and the East. Stationed in the city were an armed garrison of soldiers who were expected to be the first line of defense against any attackers who might seek to come against Pergamum, the capital city. 

While having various temples to pagan gods Thyatira was not known as a center for Greek or Roman Emperor worship. Because of this there was not direct persecution related to religious worship. This would have been very different from the Christians in Smyrna who were being persecuted because they refused to burn incense to the emperor and refused to proclaim, “Caesar is Lord!” In Thyatira Satan sought to use a different strategy, a more passive approach, to destroy the unsuspecting church. 

Thyatira was famous for its purple dye.  The Madder root was readily available around Thyatira. For centuries it had been used to dye cotton, silk, wool, leather and other textiles. It was also used with coloring pottery. It was a purple dye that mimicked the extremely rare and expensive purple dye that in the past had only been worn by royalty.  Lydia, the seller of purple, in Acts 16:14, came from Thyatira.

Because of the Madder root and its purple dye, Thyatira had become a great exporter of purple cloth. Through the years this had attracted many master dyers to the city. Eventually many guilds had been started to support the many trades and artisans. They included wool-workers, potters, leather workers, bronze-workers, as well as many others. These guilds were a major part of the strong economy in Thyatira. If one wanted to do well economically in Thyatira they needed to be connected to a guild. Here was the problem.

One needed the business contacts that the guilds provided. Many of the guild social events would include meals that were at times held in temples of pagan gods, and even if not, they usually began and ended with a sacrifice to the gods. Often the meat that was served had been sacrificed to pagan gods and the eating of the meal was viewed as an extension of this act of worship. To make things worse, these social events often included drunkenness and even different forms of immorality. To attend was to condone and to participate was to show that your loyalties did not lie with Christ. To not be a part of a guild to most seemed like commercial suicide. 

The problem in the church probably started innocently enough as time spent with business contacts, but step by step, some in the church were being led to loosen their morals, choosing to fit in more with the world around them for the sake of financial gain and social prominence. 

It probably was much like the old story of the frog in the kettle. At first the frog was relaxed in the water. Unknowingly the temperature was being raised one degree at a time. The change was so slow that the frog grew accustomed to the temperature and in the end, he was cooked and never even realized it. That is what was happening to the church in Thyatira. The church was softening its commitment to holiness and was growing more comfortable with the ways of the world.

In Revelation 2:18-19 Jesus said the following,

18 “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. 19 “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.”

In contrast to Revelation chapter one, Christ was not coming to them as the Son of Man, who relates to the humanness of man. Christ was now coming as the Son of God who would speak to them from a more divine perspective. In power, holiness, warning and judgment Christ was now coming to them with “eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.”

At times churches cling to certain characteristics of Christ while neglecting others. Some focus on faith, others grace, others joy, while neglecting the more sobering characteristics of Christ such as his call to repentance, suffering or sanctification. This church seems to have focused on the love of Christ while neglecting Christ’s holiness and promise to judge sin. It set the stage for this problem in the church.

Christ knew of the church of Thyatira and its good works, its love, its faith, its service, its patient endurance and its recent works that seemed to have been getting better and better. To many it probably seemed to be a great church to be a part of, but Christ had something against them. 

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.”

It is difficult enough when the church is having to war against the world around it, but now the danger had come inside the church and the church in Thyatira was tolerating it. 

There was a woman in the church. She is referred to as Jezebel, but that is likely not her real name. Moffat translated it “that Jezebel of a woman.” Jezebel was a wicked queen who is talked about in 1 Kings in the Old Testament. Jezebel was from a foreign country. She married Ahab the king of Israel. She brought with her pagan gods and led King Ahab and Israel to walk in wickedness and idolatry against God. Jezebel had many of the prophets of the Lord killed (1 Kings 18:13) and left behind a reputation for “harlotry and sorceries” (2 Kings 9:22).

When one thinks of wickedness in the Old Testament Jezebel is one of the names that stands out above the rest. This is quite an indictment against this woman when Jesus, the one who knows the hearts of man, refers to her as Jezebel.

This woman in the church of Thyatira was a self-appointed prophetess. Prophets and prophetesses were spokespeople of God. They were to be God appointed, and at times recognized by the church, but this phrase “calls herself a prophetess” communicates that she had taken upon herself a position of authority that was not recognized by God and had not be confirmed by the church.

We must be careful of this. A call to serve God is not meant to take place in a vacuum. It should take place within the life of the church. One of the best examples I have seen of this was several years ago when I went on a mission trip to Cuba. I remember talking with a missionary and several of the Cuban pastors, hearing how they went about discerning who is called to be a pastor. 

Those in the church would notice pastoral character and gifting in a person in the church. They would then approach him and communicate that they sensed God may be calling him to be a pastor. If he was open to his possible calling to be a pastor he would be assigned to a small settlement of 10-15 houses outside of their town. He would evangelize and minister to the people there. After a year of ministry they would evaluate what God was doing. If his call to ministry was confirmed by the fruit of his ministry then they would ask if he would be willing to attend seminary. They would then help him attend seminary and become a pastor. This was not Jezebel’s way. She had appointed herself to lead God’s people and now she was leading them away from Him.

This woman, referred to as Jezebel, was “teaching and seducing” people of the church “to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.”  Given their context, amidst the guilds, it is possible that she was convincing people of the church that participating in idol worship, drunkenness and immorality was okay because it was part of normal work expectations amidst the guilds there in Thyatira. We don’t know the exact arguments that she was using but somehow she was ushering the people of God away from holiness and into grave sin and the church was tolerating it. 

We have to be careful with the word “tolerate or tolerance” because at times it moves us in the right direction, and at others it moves us in the wrong direction.

It is true that we need to be more culturally tolerant. As the world becomes more diverse and multi-cultural this will continue to be the need. Here in Houston we experience the cultures of the world at church, at school, in our neighborhoods, and even in our own families. We need to be open to cultural ideas such as different types of foods, different types of greetings, different norms in family life and different ways of thinking. Without this we see someone’s actions or hear someone’s words and from our limited understanding we start to judge wrongly when we do not understand what is happening.  

Cultural tolerance has its benefits, but there is a difference between cultural tolerance and moral tolerance. 

Moral tolerance is completely different. If something is moral that means it has a right and wrong dynamic before God. Choosing whether to wear black or brown shoes does not have a right or wrong dynamic. There is not a holy option and a sinful option. They are just shoes. Choosing whether or not to commit adultery does have a right and wrong option. Choosing whether to take the car or the bus to come to church does not have a right or wrong dynamic to it, but choosing whether or not to gossip or lose your temper about something selfish does.  We all were created by God and are under His authority. There are laws of God to which all mankind will be accountable. We are called to care for those in need. We are called to value life. We are to love others. We are instructed not to murder, to steal, or to covet. These are the standards that are the same regardless of what culture we have come from. None of us are beyond the authority of the standards of God. As Romans 2:14-15 says, these are the laws that God has written on every person’s heart. 

We are in a time in history much like theirs, where for the sake of “tolerance” we are being told to conform to the world around us. 2 Timothy 4:3-4 warns us about these days.

”For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

This is very likely what was happening in the life of the church in Thyatira. The only reason that Jezebel had any influence was because there were people in the church who were open to her ideas. There must have been people in the church who were willing to set aside the standards of God for their own worldly benefit. They followed her teaching because it was what they wanted to hear. 

We see here a dangerous trend. It threatens us as well. It is the separation of the secular and the spiritual. I understand what people are trying to say when they are using those terms. Secular is defined as something that is not connected to spiritual or religious matters, but for a Christian that distinction does not truly exist. When we put our faith in Christ He took complete ownership of our entire lives. He has all authority over our prayer life, our work life, our family life, our financial life, and every other part of our lives. Our emotions are His. Our words are His. Our thoughts are His. Our actions are His. For a Christian every moment is to be an expression of our worship of Christ. 

In Thyatira they were trying to separate their lives into spiritual and secular so they could do what their selfish hearts desired, and still claim to be followers of Christ, but that is not the way of Christ. 

There was a fine line to walk. In 2 Corinthians 6:17 we are called to “Come out from among them (the world).”  A little later Paul then writes, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” There was a time and a way to be separate from the world and at other times they were supposed to be living life alongside the world so they might point others towards Christ. As it has been said, “We are to be in the world and not of it.”

This should cause us to pause for a moment to search our own hearts. None of us are perfect, but are we striving to live a singular, consistent, authentic, non-hypocritical Christian life, or are we two different people depending on where we are and who we are with? If so, today, may Christ convict us and turn us back towards home. May we not be drawn in by the temptations of the world, but may we truly believe that as we put our trust in Christ for all things that He will provide all that we need. 

Jesus then continued in Revelation 2:21-23,

21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, 23 and I will strike her children dead. 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.”

In these next verses we see that a gracious Messiah had given this woman time to repent but she had refused. God will not be mocked. When grace is refused the only other option is judgment. Here we find extreme judgment. We do not know for sure if it was literal or figurative, but either way it was Christ, the One with eyes flaming like fire, who was bringing complete judgment on this woman and all who continued to follow her wickedness. 

In this display of wrath and judgment the churches would see that Christ searches hearts and minds and gives to each according to their works. They should not mistaken His grace for weakness. He was good, but was also to be feared. Unrepentant sin against an infinitely holy God has terrible consequences. 

Christ then turned His attention back to the rest of the church in Revelation 2:24-25,

“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. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. “

Christ gave them no other assignment. For those who had not given in to Jezebel’s teaching Jesus instructed them to hold on to what they had in the faith until Christ comes. Here we see three commands that only Christ can accomplish in us. In the midst of our holding fast, He is the one who is really holding on to us.  It is like the mother walking with the young child who is learning to walk. The child holds on to the hand of the mother, but the mother is really doing the “holding.” Christ has a forever hold on His children. As we read in John 10:28, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Christ is their confidence.

Jesus then continued in Revelation 2:26-29,

26 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, “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 them calls them to overcome, but overcoming is also only possible because Christ, the true Overcomer dwells within them. There would be days that this would seem impossible in their lives, but their confidence was that he who overcame even death was in them and they were in Him. There may be days that were beyond them, but their confidence was that when they arrived in those moments of struggle or persecution Christ would meet them there with the grace that would be required for them to overcome.

They were then instructed to keep His works to the end. Keeping His works to the end is an overflow of what Christ is doing in our lives. Christ is the one who “works in us to will and to act according to His purpose” (Philippians 2:13). We can think back to the parable of the Prodigal Son. Because of sinful choices the son found himself living in a foreign country in utter poverty. In the midst of his misery he was still the son of his father, but he had no access to the benefits of being the son of his father. To receive the full provision and blessings of the father’s house the son had to come home, draw near and be reconciled to the father. 

That may be where you are today. You are trying to live for Christ and the world at the same time and that is not possible. In the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Pick a side. Choose Christ. Draw near to Him. Trust in His provision.  As we read in Matthew 6:33, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” As we put our hope in Him, He will give us everything that we need.

As we read in 2 Chronicles 6:19, “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him.”

God desires to honor those who will honor Him. We see it in the examples of Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby. They both were started by Christians who decided early on in their careers that their stores would not be open on Sunday. From the logical, world’s perspective that was a horrible decision because so much profit is usually made on Sunday’s, but that has not been the case. Both companies have done really well, even though they are closed on Sundays. It is just a testimony the we need to hear. In our lives and our business dealings, God will honor those who choose to honor Him. Ultimately, He is our Provider, the One who opens doors and closes door, the One who gives and takes away. Even when we are faced with work or life situations that tempt us to sin or choose the world’s logic over God’s holiness, may we seek Him first, walk in holiness and trust in His promise to meet our needs. 

Christ then encouraged those faithful followers in Thyatira, reminding them how the story ends.

Verses 26 and 27 are quoted from Psalms 2:8-9, “Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel." For the Jews this was seen as a Messianic description of a conquering Messiah who would wage war against the nations. In some ways this might be true if one is thinking about Christ’s final return. In other ways this “making the nations your heritage” can also refer to the idea from Revelation 7:9-10 that says, “9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Christ was calling out to the church of Thyatira. Many in the church had turned to the ways of the world and Christ was coming with judgment to purify His church. If they would hold on to Christ, they would rule with Him for eternity.

Christ then concluded, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Do we have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying?

Those who are in Christ have the Holy Spirit. John 16:13 tell us that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth. That was Christ’s confidence. For those who were truly in Christ, they would hear His words and be led by the Spirit to return to Christ as their first love. Through Christ those would overcome and would be given eternal life. 

Those who didn’t have an ear to hear what Christ was saying to the churches were not in Christ and would not have eternal life. Their good works would eventually be shown to be worth nothing and all would be lost.

This was Christ’s call. Some would continue walking in the sweet embrace of Christ and others would show themselves to not be part of God’s family at all. 

Those were difficult days but Christ had come to walk amongst His people and overcome. He does the same today.

In summary, to the visiting eye the church at Thyatira looked like it was doing well, when in reality it had a cancer within. This woman referred to as Jezebel was leading some in the congregation to tolerate and even participate in sin. For those who were in the church it was now time to put a stop to this and return to holiness. If they would, they would rule with Christ in eternity.

Let us realize that it is possible for a church to be busy, full of people but conforming to the world at the same time. It is difficult to go against the current of culture, but that is what we are called to. Broad is the way that leads to destruction and narrow is the way that leads to eternal life (Matthew 7:13-14). This side of heaven we will always be outnumbered. May God give us the faith to walk in holiness remembering that Christ is He “who searches mind and heart, and gives to each of you according to your works.”