Poisonous Tolerance: Jesus’s Warning to His Church

This morning we come to the letter to the smallest and least important town of the seven in Revelation 2–3. Little is known about Thyatira because little still exists that mentions it. Yet this is also the longest letter of the seven. Don’t assume small means insignificant, or unworthy of careful attention.

This also is the fourth, and therefore middle, letter of the seven — which, in the ancient way of structuring a sequence, could indicate that this is the heart or center of the message to the seven churches. As we’ve seen, there is a chiastic structure, or concentric circles, to the seven letters: the first and last churches are the least healthy; second and sixth seem strongest; the middle three are mixed. We will see that there is first a commendation to Thyatira, then a corrective.

According to one scholar, “All of the letters deal with the theme of faithfulness to Christ in the midst of an often-threatening pagan culture” (Greg Beale, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, 54). This is particularly apparent in Thyatira. This is the kind of church prone to compromise with the surrounding society — the kind of church prone to tolerate sin in its midst in a way it should not. It’s a manifestly loving church, admirably positioned in the world, which can present the threat of becoming of the world.

Remember this is Jesus speaking. Verse 19: “I know your works.” Verse 20: “I have this against you.” Verse 23: “I am he who searches mind and heart.” Verse 25: “until I come.” And there are several more. So, let’s see what Jesus himself says to this church: praise, peril, and promise.

1. Praise: Jesus commends the church’s growth in acts of love.

I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. (Revelation 2:19)

This church has been off to a good start. It has made progress. Its latter works exceed the first. Churches, not just individual Christians, grow and mature.

May God make it so for us as a church. May it not be, as we age into our seventh year, that our former works would exceed the latter, but that like Thyatira — and like churches that might be known for being liberal — that our latter works would exceed the former. That we would grow in love, and not regress, with love in our hearts for our neighbors and our city, and tangible acts of love to meet needs in the name of Jesus.

There is another word of commendation from Christ here as well, in verses 24–25. Some, as we’ll see, may be falling into error, likely the leaders in particular, but others aren’t compromising. There are good, faithful, uncompromised Christians in this church. Jesus has kept them, contaminated as their church might be. God’s Spirit powerfully preserves his elect, even despite bad leadership. Look at verses 24–25:

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.

“Every generation of Christians faces the question of what to embrace in culture and what to reject.”

So, first, the risen Christ commends the church at Thyatira for its good works, for its acts of love. This is a loving church — that’s good. And there are good, faithful people in the congregation, even as the leadership may be compromised. We shouldn’t presume that everyone in a struggling church is as compromised as its leaders. This church cares about the needs of others. This is a church that meets practical needs. Whereas the Ephesian church did well to cross its doctrinal tees, but failed in practical love (2:1–7), the church in Thyatira is strong in its ministries of mercy and in caring for the weak.

However, on the other side, don’t assume all is well just because a church is active in the community. Jesus commends this church for its growth in love, but he correct its compromise.

2. Peril: Jesus calls out the wrong kind of tolerance.

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. (Revelation 2:20–23)

Here’s the concern: “You tolerate that woman Jezebel.” Now, tolerance, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problem. Tolerance can be good, in the right place. And it can be bad, and produce deadly compromise, in the wrong place.

There is a kind of tolerance in society, in the public square, in the civic arena, that allows people with different religious beliefs to live together in peace and respect each other as humans. In society, we as Christians advocate for religious tolerance, that the city or state or nation not punish or discriminate against groups for their religious beliefs (unless those beliefs physically harm others).

But this distinction between the church and the city, or the world, is critical to keep in mind. The problem with some from the church in Thyatira is their tolerance is in the wrong place. They may be admirably tolerant of different views in town. They are in the world. They are cultural affirmers and participators. They are out there doing acts of love in Thyatira. But in their wide, indiscriminate love in the world, they have become undiscerning in the church — which can happen in large-hearted churches.

Tolerating Sin

They are tolerating, in God’s house, among God’s people, what they dare not tolerate, and in a leader at that: Jezebel, who “calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants” — which may be literal adultery, or figurative, or both.

This Jezebel seems to profess the Christian faith and is teaching in the church. The name Jezebel here is symbolic, proverbial for wickedness, a reference to one of the most evil figures in the history of Israel. In the days of Elijah, Ahab, who was Israel’s most wicked king to that point, did evil by taking a wife named Jezebel from the king of the Sidonians (1 Kings 16:31). It was a marriage of compromise: She worshiped the false god Baal, and once Ahab married her, he soon did as well. Jezebel used her power as queen to kill true prophets of God (1 Kings 18:4, 13), and threatened to kill Elijah as well (1 Kings 19:2). First Kings 21:25 says she incited Ahab to evil.

And in the end, Ahab and Jezebel did not escape God’s judgment. God avenged the blood of his prophets (2 Kings 9:7), Jezebel was thrown out a window and trampled underfoot, and dogs ate her flesh just as Elijah had prophesied (1 Kings 21:23; 2 Kings 9:36).

It’s not insignificant that this so-called Jezebel in Thyatira, whoever she is, is a woman. Though Jezebel was not king, she incited her weak husband to evil. He let her have her way. Perhaps a similar dynamic was at work in Thyatira, and the leaders have given her leash, and been easy on her, because she’s a woman, perhaps even the wife of one of them.

“Jesus received authority to rule over the nations. And now, he will give that authority to his people.”

And this influential woman is teaching some in the church “to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20). We saw this pair last week. These are the same two temptations mentioned in the letter to Pergamum: “food sacrificed to idols and . . . sexual immorality” (2:14).

These may well be the two great social-cultural compromises of the day. In Acts 15, at what we call the Jerusalem council, when the apostles and elders agreed that Gentile Christians need not live under Old Testament law, they wrote to them,

It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (Acts 15:28–29)

What this may mean about Thyatira is that this church is facing the characteristic temptations of the day. Which should not be a surprise for a church like this: in the world, growing in love, professing Christ, and yet facing the temptation to cater to the flesh and social pressure from the unbelieving world surrounding them.

Compromise with the World

So also every generation of Christians faces the question of what to embrace in culture and what to reject. And in some senses, it gets more and more complicated. Our cities today dwarf the largest cities in the world two thousand years ago — not to mention a small town like Thyatira. And our communication tools and technology connect us with people and ideas and challenges far away — which is why we need each other in the church, and faithful teaching, to be discerning. These are not easy questions. And yet, amid our confusing swirl of temptations today, both of these are relevant to us — one very directly, one indirectly.

Consider the reality and ripples of sexual immorality today, from dress and modesty, to media and pornography, to expectations in dating and engagement, to homosexuality and transgender issues.

And for food sacrificed to idols? Not eating meat put before you at a work banquet could cost you your job in Thyatira. There were economic pressures to just go along with the false religion in town. And how often are we tempted to just go along with what society is serving us? Whether what our jobs pressure us to affirm, or what our entertainment involves. Or political expectations, that you’re all in with the left or right, antiracism or nationalism.

Ask yourself: What is it today, for you, for us, that makes sin look normal and righteousness strange? In movies, on television, in sports, in polite conversation?

We could boil it down to this in Thyatira: the problem in the church was worldliness — compromise with the world. And what was especially perilous is that someone in the church was teaching what likely was a sophisticated form of compromise. Perhaps she called it “the deep things of God.” Which Jesus says, in verse 24, amounts to “the deep things of Satan.”

Patient Justice

How, then, does Jesus himself respond to this compromise — the compromised theology of Jezebel, and the compromised tolerance of the church? Verses 21 and 22 give us two responses.

“Jesus will give us himself. We will be his, and he will be ours. Our final reward is to be with our Lord.”

First is patience. Verse 21: “I gave her time to repent.” Jesus doesn’t rush to judgment. He gives time to repent — oh, what patience and kindness! And if he gives time to repent, should not we also? How amazing, says Leon Morris, that Jesus “still holds out the prospect of mercy. This is to be noted throughout this book [of Revelation]. It is full of severe judgments, but always there is the prospect of deliverance for those who repent” (Revelation, 72). This is not to confuse patience with compromise. The patience is not indefinite.

Second, then, is Christ’s justice — never gratuitous, never overdone. Verses 22–23: “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.” In other words, the punishment will fit the crime. The bed of sexual immorality will receive a sickbed. Like Haman hung from his own gallows in the book of Esther (7:9–10). Or like Psalm 7:15–16: “He [the wicked man] makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends” (see Psalm 9:15 and 10:2, among many others).

Christ is patient. But not indefinitely. He will, in time, exact fitting justice. Which leads to his final message to this church.

3. Promise: Jesus pledges to give his people the moon.

Now finally, the most amazing part: these two promises in verses 26–28. Can you believe what Jesus promises his church in these seven letters? Ephesus: “to eat of the tree of life.” Smyrna: to “not be hurt by the second death.” Pergamum: “hidden manna” and “a white stone.” And now Thyatira, maybe the best of all, with Laodicea (“I will grant him to sit with me on my throne”). First, verses 26–27:

The one who conquers and who keeps my works [in contrast with “her works” from verse 22] 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.

So Jesus, the God-man, has received authority from his Father to rule over the nations. And in the end, he will give that authority to his people. So not only, as Psalm 2 celebrates, will Jesus, as Christ, be King of the nations and rule over all peoples, but his people, he says, will rule with him. Then, finally, and best, as we come to the Table, verse 28:

And I will give him the morning star.

What in the world could that mean? The planet Venus has long been known as the morning star because it appears on the horizon just before the sun. Venus is closer to the sun than we are, and it orbits the sun. So when you see Venus, you know the sun isn’t far behind; it won’t be long before it comes over the horizon. Day is at hand. So the morning star represents hope for a new day, and that the darkness is soon to be broken. But what does it mean for us to get the morning star?

There are very few mentions of the morning star in Scripture, and only one other in the book of Revelation, which I think makes this a dead giveaway. Revelation 22:16: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

The morning star is Christ himself. Which is the greatest possible thing he could promise his church. He will give us himself. We will see him face-to-face. We will be his, and he will be ours.

Our final reward is to be with our Lord.

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