Dear Compromised Church (Rev. 2:18-29)
We now come to the fourth in this series of seven letters written to churches in Asia Minor. It is a mixed community that represents the makeup of the broader visible church in all times. It’s the longest letter, positioned right at the center of the bunch, so we would do well to pay attention to its message.
Expository preaching forces me to address all kinds of sin. If I always focused on pet sins, I’m likely not being faithful to the text. However, where Scripture addresses cultural idols, it commands our attention. Sexual immorality is at the heart of our text this morning. The perversions of idolatry that wrapped themselves up with political and social agendas in the first century are parallel with twenty-first century perversions.
Sexual immorality in all its forms are condemned in Scripture. God has given us a wonderful gift to be enjoyed by one man and one woman in the covenant of marriage. What God made beautiful, man corrupts by promiscuity and homosexuality. The prevalence of pornography encourages children to explore their preferences at increasingly younger ages. The culture deems abstinence archaic and same-sex attraction natural.
Can we love the sinner without blurring the lines of their sin?
God seems to have a special hatred for sexual sin. Yes, Scripture mentions plenty of other sins, but this one in particular receives repeated attention. The prophets frequently spoke of idolatry in terms of adultery and prostitution. It illustrates our utter depravity very well. Where Jesus speaks so clearly, the Church must not be silent. The consequences of sexual immorality within the Church cannot be ignored.
Read Rev. 2:18-29.
The portrayal of Jesus in the opening verse should strike fear in the heart of the compromised Christian. With his fiery eyes, Jesus searches the hearts and minds of men (2:23). With his bronze feet, the wicked are trampled (Isa. 63:3, 6).
Wilcock Christ of the piercing eyes and the trampling feet comes to her like the sun shining in full strength (1:16), infinitely more terrible than the pagan sun-god Apollo, whose temple at Thyatira was famous.
But before the formal warning, they receive a word of commendation.
I. A Fruitful Community (19)
Thyatira (25,000) was located forty miles southeast of Pergamum. Rome had to place a garrison there because it was vulnerable to attack.
Johnson Lacking religious and political significance, Thyatira’s identity was molded by commerce and manufacturing industries, each dominated by a trade guild dedicated to a patron god or goddess.
There were guilds for “wool dealers, potters, linen weavers, tanners, leather workers, and coppersmiths” (Lexham Geog.). The guilds were influential civically and religiously. They would gather for feasts and observe pagan rituals, offering meat to their god before sharing it with party guests. As the event wore on, the overindulgence in food and alcohol would spill into debauchery of all kinds. This makes Lydia’s conversion that much more remarkable. As a seller of purple from Thyatira she was also “a worshiper of God” (Acts 16:14). But it wasn’t until she heard Paul preaching in Philippi that she was soundly converted.
Before getting to the heart of the letter, Jesus summarizes the fruit of Thyatira in a single sentence. Jesus says, “I know yourworks. I see all the good works that you are doing. You are filled with love and faith. You serve and patiently endure. These don’t save you, but they are good and pleasing in my sight! As the world sees your light shining, you are bringing glory to your Father in heaven (Matt 5:16).”
The list of qualities the church possessed is no less impressive for its brevity. These are the visible evidences of the Spirit’s work in their church. They are a true church possessing real fruit. In fact, they are growing in these attributes, as their “latter works exceed the first.” Fruit provides hope for further purification.
But our motives are so easily tripped up by our deceiving hearts. Even our best works are “mixed with so much weakness and imperfection” (WCF 16.5). We seem to make so little progress in our sanctification that we are tempted to think very little about it. Let’s just focus upon our justification. It’s as if we respond to Jesus saying, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do Lord, but honestly none of that matters. My works are just filthy rags in your sight. Let’s just talk about what you have done for me.”
We can all agree that the perfect righteousness of Christ provides a much better foundation for our salvation than our sin-filled attempts at good works. That is absolutely true for the grounds of our justification. Our good works cannot merit pardon from sin. Nothing we ever do can bring us peace with God. That is accomplished by Christ and received by faith. It is wholly dependent upon grace.
But true justification is always and necessarily followed and confirmed by a lively sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. It is a daily struggle for growing Christians to walk by the Spirit and not by our sinful flesh. That battle against the flesh may leave you drained and weary. But hear this precious truth friends, Jesus notices and appreciates your good works. He is pleased to witness and reward your sincere love, faith, service, and patient endurance—“although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (WCF 16.6). Just as we have been accepted through Christ, so our good works are accepted in him.
Although fruitful, what was rotten needed to be thrown out.
II. A Compromised Community (20-23)
When Israel’s King Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of the king of the Sidonians (1 Kgs 16:31), they lead the nation to worship Baal (1 Kgs 21:25-26). Jezebel was a cunning and brutal queen (1 Kgs 21:5-26), and her name became a byword in Israel for sexual and spiritual idolatry (2 Kgs 9:22).
Apparently, “Jezebel” was seducing people to commit sexual immorality and enjoy the pagan feasts of the trade guilds. “We can’t expect people to give up their careers for Christ! I’m a prophetess, but I can’t get anyone to listen. We are on the brink of defeat if we don’t change our strategy. We should recognize that participation in these festivities is just a physical act. It doesn’t have to effect our faith. We know these gods are not real like our God. We can participate in their gatherings without a sense of guilt. Let us come alongside them and show them that we can live as they live, but believe differently. Then maybe, we’ll find people willing to hear the gospel!”
Like Pergamum (Re 2:14), they were compromised by false teachers who encouraged worldliness. They were communing with false teachers rather than excommunicating them as they should.
It was not possible for them to separate their physical lives from their spiritual lives. The gospel changes everything. To be together for the gospel will necessarily separate us from particular practices of the world. So Jesus called Jezebel to repent, but she refused and forfeited her opportunity. Now she was going to face judgment. And those who have been enticed by her would receive the same judgment if they likewise refused to repent.
The toleration of sexual immorality was nothing new. Paul condemned the Corinthians for tolerating it to a degree that was worse than pagans (1 Co 5:1). Peter spoke of false teachers who feast with the church while their eyes are full of adultery and they have an insatiable appetite for sin, with which they “entice unsteady souls” (2 Pe 2:14). Jude wrote about those who had crept into the church and turned the grace of God into sensuality (Jud 4).
This is the primary tactic of Satan at the end of time as well. We will see this theme again in chapters fourteen, seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen as the harlot of Babylon wreaks havoc upon the world and leads many away from the worship of God, and ultimately to their destruction. Satan has already used the toleration of unrepentant sexual immorality to devastate many fruitful churches. Flee sexual immorality (1 Co 6:18)! Friendship with the world is enmity with God (Jam 4:4)!
Phillips The cost of being faithful to Christ was made poignant when the early church leader Tertullian rebuked a believer for participating in idolatry because of his business. The man defended his sin, saying, “After all, I must live.” Tertullian answered, “Must you?”
It’s critical that we see repentance as “a saving grace”. Repentance is not something we can cause to happen on our own. We need the grace of God to be at work in our lives. That grace is needed in order to have an accurate understanding of two things: our sin, and Christ’s mercy. Both ideas are important for repentance to be effective.
We could easily stop there and appreciate that, but what exactly is the grace of God accomplishing in our lives?
- Turn away from sin with grief and hatred, while turning to God.
- Endeavor after new obedience with full purpose.
Has the recognition of your sin brought such a sense of grief and hatred that you felt no option but to turn away from it? Were you filled with ambition to obey God?
Not everyone in the church had fallen for Jezebel.
III. A Reigning Community (24-29)
There was a remnant of believers in Thyatira who had not heard Jezebel’s teaching or been enticed by her immorality. Listen to verse 24. To suggest that we are free to sin does not represent a deeper form of Christianity, but bondage to Satan.
Jesus did not give this group any additional commands, just as the Jerusalem Council had concluded (Acts 15:28). They were simply encouraged to “hold fast what you have until I come.” Far from lightening up their standards, Christ calls us to cling to them tighter. The Church can become compromised in a number of ways, but it always begins with a loosening of our grip upon the truth of God’s Word.
Those who repent of their compromise or remain faithful “until the end” (26) will be rewarded with authority over the nations. The present cultural situation is reversed in heaven. Those with all the power on this earth, will be shattered by those who have been united to the reigning King.
They will rule with a rod of iron, which means they will be ruling alongside, and in the power of the Lord (Re 12:5; 19:15). They have the authority to destroy like a clay dish that is shattered into pieces. This image comes directly from Psalm 2:8-9 which describes the Son who possesses the nations as a heritage and rules over them with a rod of iron. This is a picture of his power to bring wrath upon the earth. But there is also a promise of blessing to those who take refuge in him (Psalm 2:12).
Poythress All rebellion is forcibly wiped out. Christians now know that the destruction of rebellion takes two very different forms: repentance and faith in Christ lead to crucifying the old rebellion of Christians, whereas the fire of hell ends the rebellion of the unrepentant.
Their authority is also likened to the authority that Jesus received from the Father. An authority that is omnipotent, all-powerful.
And finally they will also receive the morning star. Later on Jesus will refer to himself as “the bright morning star” (Re 22:16). Much like we saw last week with Pergamum, Jesus is promising to give more of himself to those who conquer (Re 2:17). It points forward to a day when the light from the lampstand of the church will be eclipsed by the light of the brightest star, not far off in the distance, but moved in among them to share in the reign of God for all eternity!
A reigning community will result from an uncompromising community. But an uncompromising community does not have to be a graceless community. We must be loving and compassionate like a doctor diagnosing a disease, but we must speak the truth regardless of how much it hurts to hear. When “37% of women obtaining abortions identify themselves as Protestant Christians” (Phillips), we can safely assume that our children are hearing the culture loud and clear.
On that note, I would like to say something important. If one of our children becomes pregnant, we must be capable of receiving the news as a church with a willingness to surround her with the kind of support she will need so that it is abundantly obvious that abortion is not the only option. By elevating sexual sin so high, we may unwittingly push our children in the direction of Planned Parenthood to quietly get rid of their “problem” because they’re so terrified of how the church will react.
Let me be clear about this. The child that is conceived as the natural result of sexual sin is not the “problem”. That child is a precious gift from God, who is made in his image from conception. May this church never be a place where a woman feels like her only option is to eliminate the life in her womb in order to save face. We can and must condemn sin while extending compassion and love to the sinner.