Please take a copy of God’s Word in your hands and turn with me in them to the book of Revelation chapter 2, at the eighteenth verse! If you’re using one of our church Bibles, you’ll find that on page 1029. Revelation chapter 2 at verse 18. We’ve been working our way slowly through the book of Revelation and we’ve come to the fourth of seven letters sent by the risen Christ through the Apostle John to seven churches in Asia Minor. The first, if you will remember, was the church in Ephesus whose problem was that they were a church in the throes of backsliding. They had lost their first love for Jesus Christ and they were being called, in Jesus’ letter to them, to repent and to recover their lost first love. And then there was the church in Smyrna, a godly, faithful congregation who were enduring sharp and prolonged and painful suffering. Their trials were already severe and Jesus told them they were actually going to get much worse. And then last time, we looked in the third place at the message for the church in Pergamum. This is a church that had come to tolerate false teaching and it was being summoned to repentance.
Tonight, we have arrived at the middle church of the seven, the fourth church, the church at Thyatira. Of all the seven cities listed in this part of Revelation, Thyatira was by far the least important. It was neither a major religious center nor a regional political capital. It was simply a busy, minor Macedonia trading colony notable, if it was notable for anything at all, for the number of trade guilds that provided the structure for civic society and business life in the city of Thyatira. And yet of all the seven churches, of all the seven letters, the letter to the believers in Thyatira is the longest and the most involved, which reminds us as we turn to read the Scriptures together, not to evaluate the importance of a church by the importance of its location or the influence of its community or its context. Christ’s metric and ours are sometimes quite different and the church at Thyatira, apparently, has a significance out of all proportion to the city in which it is located. In many ways, the message to the church at Thyatira is the mirror image of the message of Christ for the church at Pergamum. Virtually the same problems with false teaching and sexual immorality have arisen in Thyatira as were found in the church in Pergamum. But this time, whereas the believers at Pergamum were given their first warning, the church at Thyatira is receiving a final ultimatum. Here’s what happens when you stop listening to the warnings that Jesus gives!
Before we read the text, would you bow your heads with me, first of all, as we pray together?
O God, would You send us now, please, the Holy Spirit that we may hear the voice of Christ and obey in repentance and faith and in reliance upon the grace You give to begin to live in new obedience. Give to us ears to hear what Your Spirit says to the church, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Revelation chapter 2 at the eighteenth verse. This is the inspired Word of Almighty God:
“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.
I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 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. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 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, 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. 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. Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 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. And I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
Amen, and we give thanks to God that He has spoken to us in His holy and inerrant Word.
Listening is a skill that we all need to cultivate, but we all sometimes fail to deploy. Isn’t that the case? This came home to me last week when I read a story from the BBC about Mr. Mark Patterson. Mark Patterson is the stadium announcer for the Dairy City Soccer Stadium in Ireland. And as often happens, I suppose it’s part of the daily duties, the regular task of a stadium announcer, during the game, Mr. Patterson had to announce to the crowds the numbers from a license plate of a car that was blocking an exit to one of the stadium parking lots. And no doubt his frustration began to grow as over and over and over he repeatedly called for the owner of the vehicle to move the car so that fans from the visiting team, some of whom were attempting to leave early, could exit the parking lot. And still, no one came forward. For a full and frustrating thirty minutes, the final thirty minutes of the match now, Mr. Patterson had been calling out the numbers over the stadium’s speaker system asking for the owner of the offending vehicle to move the car, and all without result. And then the realization finally dawned. The numbers that he had been repeating for the last half hour finally penetrated – he was the annoying delinquent who would not come forward and the offending vehicle was his own. Mr. Patterson learned the hard way that day that it is perfectly possible to hear all the information that we need, unambiguously stated, with clarity and with precision, but simply hearing the information is not enough if it does not penetrate and take root and result in action.
The church at Thyatira is another, albeit much more serious example, of the same phenomenon. And to be sure, this time the stakes are much, much higher. This is a church that is not listening and so Jesus comes and He speaks to the believers at Thyatira in His character, notice, as holy Judge. You see that there in verse 18? Look how Jesus is described; His deity, Son of God. His incisive, penetrating sight, seeing clearly to the true nature of things – “eyes like flames of fire.” His immovable rule and His sovereign dominion as King whose governance cannot be shaken – “his feet like burnished bronze.” That’s the startling imagery by which Christ introduces Himself in His letter to His people in Thyatira. If they haven’t been listening before, clearly now He wants them to sit up and take notice. And if you’ll look down at the second half of verse 23, you will see Christ’s agenda as Judge, not just for Thyatira as it turns out, but for all the churches. Verse 23, here’s what Jesus wants from His dealing with the Thyatiran Christians – “that all the churches will know that I am he who searches minds and hearts and I will give to each of you according to your work.” We mustn’t think that because we are saved by free grace alone that our obedience has no part to play! Certainly our salvation is based in no way upon the merit of our good works, nevertheless, we do need to understand that the free and gracious character of our salvation notwithstanding, the disciplinary action of Christ or the blessing of Christ upon His Church, or for that matter, upon each of us individually as Christian believers, is based on our behavior in obedience to Him. Our works matter, both in life and in eternity!
And that comes out here. If you’ll notice the number of times that works are mentioned in our passage. Verse 19, “I know your works. Your latter works exceed the first.” Verse 22, “Repent of her works.” Verse 24, “I will give to each of you according to your works.” Verse 26, “The one who conquers and keeps my works to the end.” Our works matter a very great deal! “Let us sin that grace may come,” is not an option for a child of God. Holiness matters and without holiness no one shall see the Lord. Nor ought we to expect God’s favor on our ministry and on our witness here as a church if holiness is not the characteristic mark and the constant ambition of our life together. And so this is a solemn letter, urgent and full of warning, although as we will see, not without marvelous encouragement and Gospel hope. And I want to explore its message with you under two simple headings. First, we’ll consider the contradiction that Christ sees festering right in the heart of the Thyatiran church in verses 19 to 21. The contradiction that Christ sees. And then secondly, the consequences that Christ supplies, verses 21 to the end of the passage. The contradiction Christ sees, then the consequences Christ supplies.
- The Contradiction Christ Sees
Look at verse 19 to 21 first. The contradiction that Christ sees. There are two patterns that emerge as you carefully examine the life of the church in Thyatira. On the one hand in verse 19, Jesus celebrates a clear record of spiritual progress. And yet, in verses 20 and 21, on the other hand, Jesus exposes a tragic pattern of spiritual regress. And both seem to exist at the same time in the life of the congregation. Look at verse 19 first of all. There’s a clear pattern, a clear record of spiritual progress. “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the former.” The first, that’s a remarkable description of spiritual fruitfulness, isn’t it? It’s not just that they have a history of love and faith and service and endurance. No, they are growing! They are moving on. Unlike the church back in Ephesus that had lost its first love and were being called back to “do the works it did at first,” the church in Thyatira is doing better now than it ever has. Their latter works exceed the first, which, by the way, is part of the definition of perseverance and patient endurance in Scripture. It’s not a static, defensive condition, holding ground, not retreating. No, patient endurance and Christian perseverance means enduring in the pattern of faithfulness and fruitfulness to which we are all called. As 2 Peter chapter 1 at verse 5 and following puts it, “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue and virtue with knowledge and knowledge with self-control and self-control with steadfastness and steadfastness with godliness and godliness with brotherly affection and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What is Peter saying? Grow! Make progress! Press on! That is the Christian life. And that was the church in Thyatira – not static; growing. Their latter works exceeded the first.
I wonder if that could be said of you or of First Church as a whole? Do our latter works exceed the first or are our best days all in the past? Are you perhaps stagnating or are you supplementing your faith with virtue and knowledge and self-control and steadfastness and godliness and brotherly affection and love? Have you settled into a comfortable groove or even slipped back some and diminished in your zeal for Christ and your devotion to His cause? What a thrill! Can you imagine hearing the risen Christ commend you as He commended the church in Thyatira saying, “Your latter works exceeded the first?”
Thyatira’s Tragic Spiritual Regress
But then look at verses 20 and 21. Right there alongside this record of spiritual progress there is this tragic pattern of spiritual regress. “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 foods sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.” Jezebel, you may remember, was the queen of the northern kingdom of Israel, married to King Ahab. You can read about her in 1 Kings 16 and 21. She was notorious for inciting Israel to worship pagan deities and to indulged in the sexual perversions that were a part of the cults of Baal and Ashtoreth. And like Jezebel of old, apparently in the church in Thyatira there was a woman claiming to be a prophetess whose teaching, interestingly, is the mirror image of those errors we’ve noted already cropping up in the church in Ephesus and in Pergamum among the followers of Balaam and the Nicolatians – food offered to idols and sexual immorality.
Toleration of Jezebel
But these two issues would have been particularly problematic temptations in Thyatira because of the trade guilds that I mentioned earlier that dominated life in the city. It was virtually impossible to participate in business there without taking part in the activity of the guilds, which often shared a sacred meal dedicated to their patron deity, Apollo, the son of Zeus, often ending in debauchery and in sexual immorality. And Jesus’ indictment of the church in Thyatira is not simply that these things are sinful and wicked and wrong – which they are, of course. Or that Jezebel’s teaching was in error. According to verse 24, she claimed these were the “deep things,” really profound truths, the secret knowledge available only to the initiates. Jesus calls them the deep things of Satan. Beware, by the way, of teachers in the church who claim to provide access to extra knowledge not available to the rest of us. Beware, peddlers of deep truths, un-coverers of new mysteries! Stay in the familiar old paths of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. No, the issue at Thyatira wasn’t simply that Jezebel was in error, though she was. The issue at Thyatira was that the church tolerated her presence and made room for her followers.
And what I want you to see clearly is that the terrible judgements that Christ will pronounce in verses 22 and following, are the final fruit of which the toleration of the believers at Thyatira is the root. Because the church tolerated her sin and her deceptions, because the church would not draw boundaries and practice loving, pleading, but firm and faithful church discipline, the warnings Christ apparently gave to Jezebel and to her followers went unheeded. “I gave them time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.”
Unruly children can be hard to handle sometimes and sometimes parents fail to discipline them. Every parent has had those moments. And it’s often tenderness and compassion actually that drives us as parents to withhold appropriate discipline or to fail to follow through. We don’t want to put those boundaries in place. We don’t want to push our children away, I suppose. We don’t want to lose them because we’ve been too harsh. That’s our fear! And yet, if that becomes the governing pattern of the way we respond to rebellion in the life of our children, the monster we don’t want them to become, because of our failure to insist on appropriate boundaries, is very often precisely what they do become. It seems like love at the time to sidestep discipline. It seems like love at the time to be soft and to make room and to tolerate rebellion, but all it does is reinforce an unwillingness to submit to authority which, if left unchecked, will be disastrous in the end.
And that is exactly what happened in Thyatira when the church failed to act and insist on Biblical boundaries for those who were teaching error within their ranks. The elders, it seems, simply looked the other way and made room for sexual sin and for idolatry. They tolerated Jezebel! And so it’s hardly a surprise, then, when Christ issues His warning in His Word giving Jezebel time to repent and she would not. Like a spoiled child who had never heard the word, “No,” Jezebel and her followers would not submit to Christ’s Lordship. There’s a pattern of spiritual regress. The failure of the church led to still deeper rebellion in the life of the followers of Jezebel and ultimately would lead to dreadful judgments from the hand of Christ.
And these two patterns seem to coexist in the life of the church in Thyatira – progress and regress; moving forward and falling back. Success in bearing fruit and failure to follow through. And it’s a festering contradiction that Jesus exposes and one that cannot long continue. Whatever progress we might make in love and service and patient endurance will be undermined in the end and our witness in the world ruined if we willfully tolerate those who think it is possible to claim the name of Christ as Lord while engaging in sexual immorality and in the idolatry of our age. The contradiction that Christ sees and exposes to our view.
- The Consequences That Christ Supplies
But then look with me at verses 21 to 29 and notice the consequences that Christ supplies. And just like there are these two streams in the life of the church in Thyatira, there are two sets of consequences. There’s a word here of judgment for the followers of Jezebel and there’s a word of reward, a promise of blessing, to those who overcome and who persevere. Look at verses 21 to 23 first of all – the word of judgment. Jesus says, “I gave her time to repent but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 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, and I will strike her children dead.” That is a very solemn warning, isn’t it? Sickness, tribulation, and death – consequences that Jesus will mete out to those who persist in mixing Christian truth with pagan lies.
And we ought not, I don’t believe, to try and spiritualize these consequences away. The New Testament is robustly supernatural and is quite unembarrassed about the ways that Christ works in providence, sometimes to deal with aggravated sin in very concrete ways. One thinks about Ananias and Sapphira back in Acts chapter 5, for example, who lied, you will remember, to the Holy Spirit and were suddenly struck dead. Or, of those in the church at Corinth who had been abusing the Lord’s Supper, getting drunk and privileging the elites within the congregation over the impoverished with the best seats and the prominent positions. That’s why, 1 Corinthians 11 at verse 13, “Many of you are weak or ill and some of you have died because of the way you handle the Lord’s Supper.” It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God! Here is Christ promising sickness and tribulation and death to those who became followers of Jezebel at Thyatira. Now of course we are never justified in declaring any particular trial or course of sickness or tragic death as a punishment from Christ based upon our own best guesses in the circumstances. We’re never justified in doing that! It’s not our place to say it! But it absolutely is our place to take the warnings here to heart for ourselves. Jesus executes temporal as well as eternal judgments in accordance with His holy will and sovereign good pleasure and it is never, never safe to presume upon Him.
Hold Fast Until Christ Comes
But then look down at verses 24 to 29. Along with this very stark and solemn word of rebuke and warning of coming judgment, there’s also a word of promised reward and blessing. Those who have not compromised or called, notice, to hold fast to what they have until Jesus comes. He wants the Thyatiran church to have much more than a five-year plan, apparently. “Hold on to what you have until I come.” They are to conquer and to keep Christ’s word “all the way to the end,” verse 26. We don’t ever get permission to slack off or slow down or let up. “Until I come. To the end.” That is the battle cry of the church in obedience to the call of Jesus Christ. Until He comes. That’s the finish line. That’s where we’re going. To the end.
Rewards for Perseverance
But notice how Jesus will reward perseverance and endurance like that. First He says that “The one who conquers and keeps My works unto to the end, to him I will give authority over the nations and he will rule them with a rod of iron and as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from My Father.” That’s a remarkable promise! It’s language drawn from the second psalm which speaks about Jesus’ own victorious rule over the nations. Jesus is the great King in Psalm 2 who will break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. But here, these words are applied by Jesus, the great King, to His people, to you and to me as we trust in Him. It’s the one who conquers, the members of the church in Thyatira, that receive authority over the nations to rule them with an iron rod. And that is authority Jesus Himself has received from the Father and authority He gives and shares with His Church or exercises through His Church in the world.
Believers Will Reign With Christ
What a word of encouragement this must have been for the church in Thyatira. Think about their circumstances – the trade guilds excluding them, economic and social, legal hostility mounting because of their unwillingness to accommodate to the world, despised, marginalized, ignored.
“Do not forget,” Jesus says, “you will reign with Me. And as the Gospel sounds forth from you and your witness shines brightly in the darkness, you do reign with Me. Satan’s strongholds will fall, opposition will not stand, the kingdom of grace will prevail, one heart at a time perhaps, slowly and imperceptibly sometimes perhaps, at great personal cost at times perhaps, but it will prevail nevertheless.” Stand up and stand out for Jesus Christ in your home, in your business, among your fraternity brothers or sorority sisters, in your classroom, at social events, in the chance meetings along the way. Sure, be wise and winsome, be gentle and appropriate, but do not back down and do not retreat. Make progress! Add to your faith! Let the later works exceed the first! Shine like a star in a crooked and perverse generation as you hold forth the Word of life. And Jesus says to the Thyatiran believers, “My reign and rule is something into which you will be drawn as together, as I through you, build My Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
Christ is the Morning Star
And then finally, look at verse 28. Here’s the crowning benefit that Christ gives to those who persevere. “I will give him the morning star.” “The morning star,” writes one commentator, “usually appears at the darkest point of the night, about two or three o’clock in the morning. It usually emerges at that point when the night is as dark as it’s going to get. When it appears there is no sign of the dawn, but when it appears, very faint and small at first, you know that the night cannot withstand the dawn. It’s just a matter of time until the dawn wipes the night away.” And in chapter 22 of the book of Revelation at verse 26, Jesus calls Himself the bright morning star. He’s the morning star! You see what He’s saying to the church in Thyatira? Isn’t this beautiful? You hear what He’s saying to you as you struggle to keep going and to ensure that the latter works exceed the first? “I will give Myself to you as you press on. If you will keep Me in your gaze at all times, no matter how dark the night gets around you, you will never lack the assurance of a swift approaching dawn. The darkness will not last! The darkness will not last! A new day is coming! I’m the pledge and the guarantee,” Jesus says. “I’m the Morning Star, the down payment of a bright shining day that will never end.”
The contradictions that Christ sees. We are called to consistency. The church can’t make progress in one area while willfully ignoring spiritual regress in another. And the consequences that Christ supplies. Sexual immorality and the idolatry of our age will not go unaddressed. Sometimes even in the regular course of our daily lives, sickness and tribulation and death are sanctions at the disposal of the heavenly Judge and we should beware of ever thinking Him so distant that He will not act. But perseverance and faithfulness to Jesus brings great reward. We will reign with Him. He will reign through us. His kingdom will prevail, His Gospel will advance, and He will give us the morning star. We will be given Jesus Christ. And with Him, even in the darkest night of our worst sufferings, our deepest sorrows, even in the blackest midnight of cultural depravity and societal sin all around us, if we keep the Morning Star in our view we will know that dawn is coming, the sun will rise, and the glorious consummated reign of King Jesus will soon appear. So press on til then, dear brothers and sisters. Persevere until He comes, all the way to the end.
Let’s pray together!
Our Father, would You look on us please in Your generous mercy and do not treat us as our sins deserve, for the ways in which our individual lives and in our life together as a church, we tolerate the sin of our age. Help us to repent. Forgive us for presuming upon the forbearance of Jesus Christ. And as we turn back from our waywardness to our only Savior, give to us the joy of knowing the reality of His promise that we will reign with Him and He will reign through us and He will give Himself to us as the pledge of a still more glorious enjoyment of Him in the age to come. And help us to persevere until that day dawns and the shadows flee away. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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