So this morning we come back to these letters to seven churches. And we've moved from the beginning to the end of Revelation 2 – verses 18-29 – and to the letter to the church in Thyatira. The situation in this church differs from that in Ephesus, so though there is some overlap, the message to this church is different too. And immediately that's a reminder that when we're seeking to apply these letters to the life of any given church – or denomination come to that – we need to read all of them as a piece. They make up a comprehensive pastoral charge to the church in all places and at all times – the church catholic, we could say. And it is subtle and nuanced message, which recognises that the contexts of different churches vary, and that the responses of different churches to their contexts also vary. In fact even within one church there will be varying responses – some more faithful, some less. So we have to be discerning with our applications. And this Letter to Thyatira is a case in point. Even within this one church, Jesus has four different message for four different groupings within the church. So we need to be discerning and not use too broad a brush as we seek reform and renewal within our own denomination. Even when there is an extremely severe problem in a church, Jesus does not indiscriminately tar everyone with the same brush. This letter, then, is a vital lesson in such spiritual discernment. So let's get to it. I have a mere five headings this time, and you can see them on the outline.
First, Who Is Speaking?
We know it's Jesus, of course, but it's worth paying attention to how he describes himself. At the start of each letter Jesus draws attention to aspects of his divine identity and character that have particular relevance to the situation he is addressing. So he says here (verse 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.'"
The one who is in the midst of the churches, in all their earthbound, frail and sinful humanity is the Son of God himself. This is God himself, the second person of the Holy Trinity, to whom we are listening. There is a liberal view of the Scriptures as merely human documents deriving from humanity's striving after the divine, shot through with human insights that we have to weigh up, and keep or discard as we see fit. I have never understood how such a view can have intellectual integrity. The claim of Scripture is crystal clear – and here is an example. This is the triune God, the creator of all things, speaking. We can either bow in submission to this voice, or dismiss this as fake news, as unhinged folly or deliberate deception. I can't for the life of me see any middle ground. By the grace of God we're here today because by his Spirit we recognise the voice of our Saviour and King – the Son of God.
And this is one "who has eyes like a flame of fire". What does that signify? Surely that he is the one with a penetrating gaze, who sees all things. We can't hide from him. No one can. I sometimes find the unblinking stare of my little one-year-old grandson rather disconcerting because it feels as if he can see right through me. He can't. I hope. But Jesus can. And as he surveys the state of our churches and our denomination, nothing escapes him. His is what we might call a ruthlessly loving gaze.
And then he is the one "whose feet are like burnished bronze". That brings to mind Nebuchadnezzar's dream, interpreted by Daniel, of the empires of the world as a mighty warrior, with feet of clay, fatally flawed and ultimately destroyed by the eternal kingdom that filled the earth. So here is the one with feet not of brittle clay but of indestructible burnished bronze, whose dominion, as Daniel 7.14 says "is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away". Who is speaking? This is the voice of the eternal righteous ruler – the Son of God, with penetrating gaze.
Secondly, The Anatomy of A Church
As Jesus sees right through this church in Thyatira with his X-ray eyes, what does he see? He dissects (though perhaps that's not quite the right word – this not a corpse; not yet anyway) – he divides the church into four parties: one individual and three groups. The individual and one of the groups he doesn't speak to directly, but only in the third person. The other two he does speak to directly, in the second person, as 'you'. The two he doesn't address directly are the unfaithful Jezebel and those we might call the unfaithful Jezebelites. The two groups he speaks to we could call the faithful who tolerate, and the faithful who resist.
Jezebel is not, I take it, her real name, but the theologically loaded alternate name by which Jesus identifies her. It would seem that she and her activities were well enough known in the life of this church that there wouldn't be any doubt in the minds of the members of the church about the identity of the woman concerned. Jezebel, of course, was the notorious and murderous pagan wife of the equally notorious King Ahab of Israel. She was an enemy of the Lord's faithful people who killed the Lord's prophets and lead Israel astray before she herself was killed. So it's strong meat when Jesus calls this Thyatiran woman by her name. In verse 20 Jesus describes her as "Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess". So she is claiming that what she teaches is from God himself.
Then there are those who believe her; and those who don't believe her but who, while not following her, tolerate her; and finally there are those who neither believe her nor tolerate her.
All four parties come under the heading of 'the church in Thyatira', though the fact that Jesus doesn't address the first two directly suggests that he sees them as imposters when they claim membership of the church.
How, then, are these four different parties behaving? That brings me to my third heading – so:
Thirdly, Jesus' Diagnosis of A Sick Church
The four parties in the church of Thyatira display four different patterns of behaviour. First, there is the promotion of idolatry and immorality, exacerbated by a resolute refusal to repent. Secondly, there is participation in this idolatry and immorality. Thirdly, there is a dangerous tolerance of this ungodly living. And fourthly there is a healthy steadfastness.
The promotion of idolatry and immorality is what the woman Jezebel is engaged in. And she stubbornly refuses to stop. So in verses 20-21 Jesus speaks to the believers in the church of
"… that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practise sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols."
And Jesus goes on:
"I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality."
It's clear Jezebel not only teaches in the name of God that what is evil is good and is of God, she also deliberately seeks to persuade others to engage in these immoral practices. And what is more, she is engaged in these practices herself. So Jesus speaks in verse 22 of "those who commit adultery with her". She is herself committing adultery, in whatever form, as well as teaching persuasively that sexual immorality and idolatrous practices are good. This is a sinful pattern of behaviour of the worst kind. She is not only in militant rebellion against the living God, she is also actively recruiting a rebel army to join her.
And she is clearly having some success in that. Because the second group is marked by participation in idolatry and immorality. They have fallen under her spell. Or perhaps better, they have fallen for her charm. She is charming. She is no ogre, but seductive precisely because people find her appealing. This second group of unfaithful Jezebelites Jesus describes in verse 23 as "her children", and in verse 22 as "those who commit adultery with her".
These are the two unfaithful parties in the church. But then there are the two faithful groupings.
The third group is marked by a dangerous tolerance. Let there be no mistake – there is much that is good about them. Indeed Jesus commends them. Verse 19:
"I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first."
That's quite an accolade. Compare that with what Jesus said to the Ephesian church:
"Remember … from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first."
So these are serious and faithful Christian believers, growing in Godliness in so many ways – but for one significant area of failure. Verse 20:
"But I have this against you …"
There's that frightening phrase again that we heard the risen Jesus use to the church in Ephesus.
"But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel …"
The exact nature of their toleration is not spelled out. But it's clear that in some way they have come to an accommodation with Jezebel and those who follow her. The don't agree with her teaching or her behaviour. They teach biblical sexual ethics and put them into practice in their own lives. But when the chips are down they make an appropriate separation between themselves and Jezebel and the Jezebelites. I doubt they used the phrase 'good disagreement', but in some form that's the position they've ended up in. But not everyone has.
There is also this fourth group, the faithful who resist, who are marked by healthy steadfastness. Jesus speaks to them directly from verse 24. He says:
"But to the rest of you …"
What proportions of the membership of the Thyatiran church fall into each of these categories isn't spelled out, though there are enough in each for them to be clearly distinct groupings.
"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 …"
What does he say? In fact what does he say to each of the four parties? That's my next heading. So:
Fourthly, Jesus' Prescription For A Sick Church
Before he died, my father filed away with his medical papers a letter from one of his multiple consultants. It was pulling together and summarising all that was physically wrong with my dad – presumably so that all the different specialisms who were treating him could get an overview of his health – or lack of it. He had eight different serious conditions. He was a sick man.
The church in Thyatira was a sick church, with multiple different issues. Each one had to be treated differently. What, then, was Jesus' prescription?
Here's a summary. For Jezebel – removal. For the Jezebelites – either repentance or removal. For the faithful who tolerate – reformation. For the faithful who resist – reassurance and reinforcement.
It's sobering to realise that Jezebel is regarded as being incorrigibly unrepentant, despite all the opportunities for repentance that she has had in the past. Verses 21-22:
"I have [Jezebel] time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed …"
And, verse 23:
"I will strike her children dead."
That must include her too. Her sickness will end in death. As the apostle Paul says, "the wages of sin is death" where there is no repentance. Any sin can be forgiven through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. But if that redemption is scorned and there is no turning away from sin, then there is no other remedy, and death is inevitable – spiritual as well as physical.
For the unfaithful Jezebelites there is hope – but only if they stop being unfaithful Jezebelites. Verse 22 in full:
"Behold, I will throw [Jezebel] 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."
What this judgement would look like in the life of this church is not clear. But it was going to be sufficiently obvious and dramatic that it would become widely known way beyond the confines of Thyatira itself. Jesus goes on (verse 23):
"And all the churches will know …"
The clear implication is that this is as a result of seeing the judgement of Jesus in action in the life of the church.
"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."
This is not, then, judgement at the Last Day. It is judgement that is worked out, in some way that is very visible to others, in the life and history of this church. The risen Jesus – the Son of God with eyes like a flame of fire – doesn't just see what's going on with his penetrating gaze. He is active in the church to purge and purify it for the glory of God. In his own time and in his own way, that is what he will do.
There is no direct prescription for the faithful who tolerate, but perhaps that's just because it's so obvious that it doesn't need to be spelled out. When Jesus says:
"I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel …"
… then what he requires is crystal clear. Stop tolerating her, and her teaching and behaviour. Stop tolerating her idolatry and immorality. Stop making that accommodation that avoids the necessity of confrontation.
For the faithful who are already resisting, there is no prescription, just reassurance and reinforcement of what they're already doing. From the end of verse 24:
"… to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come."
What a joy to be on the receiving end of that message! Whatever the cost, we must make sure that we too fall into the category of the faithful who resist, who display that healthy steadfastness, keeping going until the end.
Here then is the bottom line. Finally and …
Fifthly, The Two Potential Outcomes
Because in the end there are only two. One for the ultimately unfaithful. One for the faithful. We will either be like earthware pots shattered into pieces – that's surely an image of eternal death. Or we will experience union with Christ and have a share in his rule. From verse 26:
"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."
The echoes of Psalm 2 are unmistakable.
What is to be the future of the sick and dying Church of England? There are two possible outcomes. Death. Or resurrection. Jesus rules. Our part is to be faithful.
Does this letter tell us whether we should stay in or come out of the central structures of the Church of England? It seems to me it doesn't answer those kinds of questions. On the one hand, all four of the parties we've considered are part of the church in Thyatira, including the faithful who resist. On the other hand, there must be some separation from Jezebel and the Jezebelites, that gives practical expression to their resistance and godly intolerance. So we're not excused the necessary hard thinking that's the reason for our conference! But one other word for now from the Son of God who is looking us in the eye with his penetrating gaze. Verse 29:
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."