Revelation 2:18-29 Thyatira

Sun, 25/09/2016 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

It’s hard to keep going if you feel isolated.

Picture the scene. You’re at Kings Cross, boarding a train to Edinburgh. A large crowd is watching the departure signs. Finally, a platform number: platform 4. The crowd surges that way, and you’re among them. But once you’re through the ticket gates, most people board the train the other side, on platform 3. You get on the Edinburgh train, along with a number of others. And you sit watching platform 3 fill up. And you wonder. Did I get on the right train?

It seems you’re not the only one having that thought. Because one by one, the passengers on your train start to get off and cross to platform 3. Until your train is only half as full as it was. It’s hard to know what to do. What if you’re on the wrong train? But if you get off to investigate, the doors could close, and you miss it entirely.

It can feel like that being a Christian. Crowds of people find another path through life. You’re on the train named Jesus Christ. But you start to wonder. What if they’re right and I’m wrong? But then, numbers on your train start to cross over. That’s really unsettling, and you find yourself wondering.

One way this happens today is over the issue of human sexuality. The Bible’s teaching is clear: God has created the gift of marriage, a lifelong union between one man and one woman. That is the place for sexual activity, and nowhere else.

The trouble is, people outside the church, broadly speaking, think that view is just weird and plain old-fashioned. There are a few of us here this morning, and crowds who aren’t, and that’s enough to get you wondering if you’re on the right train.

But then, people on the train start to get off as well. Increasingly, there are Christian voices saying that we don’t need to be so old fashioned. There are other views that are equally valid. Until it begins to feel that you’re a minority within the church as well, if you hold to the Bible’s teaching on marriage.

And at that point, it’s enormously tempting to get off the train. Just maybe: the others who don’t go to church are right. Those within church who teach that we don’t need to be so narrow about sexual ethics, just maybe they’re right.

The Archbishop of Canterbury addressed the Mothers Union on Thursday, for their 140th anniversary. The Telegraph wrote an article about it, with the headline: “The Church of England now has no place for believers in the traditional family.” I’ve not managed to track down the full text of Justin Welby’s speech. It’s quite possible that’s not what he actually said. But even headlines like that are enough to make you wonder: If even Justin Welby is looking wistfully out of the train window, why am I still here?

It’s hard to keep going if you feel isolated.

That was the pressure being felt by Christians in Thyatira.

We’re in the book of Revelation. It opens with a personal message from Jesus to the 7 churches Revelation was written to.

Jezebel’s Teaching

And in verse 20, Jesus says this: “Nevertheless, I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.”

Jezebel may not be her real name. There’s a character in the Old Testament with that name. She single-handedly led her husband, King Ahab into worshipping other gods, so it’s probably a nickname This lady in Thyatira is a reboot of Jezebel.

She’s teaching. We’re not told she had any formal teaching office. She may have just mingled over coffee and taken people out to lunch to peddle her ideas. She calls herself a prophet, though. She speaks on God’s behalf, delivering the Spirit’s teaching. That’s a very clever power game, that wins a few more people. Test everything.

What she’s teaching is that two things are OK. Sexual immorality. And eating food sacrificed to idols.

And Jesus says his servants are being misled by this. People are changing trains. Getting onto the wrong train, because Jezebel is telling people that her train also gets to the destination.

Sexual Immorality

Now we need to pause for a moment to make sure that I’m doing nothing more than simply opening up what it says here. Many people treat the Bible as a tool. They know what they want to say. So they quote the bits that lend them support, and ignore the bits that don’t fit. We mustn’t do that. Which means today I’m going to need to show a bit more working, to make sure we’re all clear that this is what the Bible says, not just what I say.

I said last week, and I said again today: That phrase “sexual immorality” refers to any sexual activity outside of the context that God created for it, the context of marriage.

To repeat something else I said last week. All of us are works in progress, in our relationships as much as any other area. Jesus is not criticising ordinary Christians who are still trying to sort life out. He’s criticising Christian teachers who say there’s nothing to sort out.

I want to show us why I defined “sexual immorality” as I did.

Let me start with some Alice in Wonderland. Humpty Dumpty has just looked at Alice’s diary, and announced that there’s only one day a year when you might get a birthday present. Then he said:

‘There's glory for you!'

'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

And on they talk.

Words can’t mean just anything. They only mean what the person meant when they said it. And they have to mean what the person you’re talking to would understand.

When Jesus talks about “sexual immorality”, he must mean what the first readers of Revelation would have understood.

The word isn’t new to the Bible. It was used in lots of other Greek literature of this period. And there it always means “sexual activity outside of marriage”, unless the context makes very clear it means being a prostitute.

But it’s also used a lot in the Bible. Here in Revelation, it’s paired with eating food that’s been offered to idols. That pairing takes us back to a very early debate. Initially, only Jews became Christians. But as Gentiles also did, the church had to work out which bits of Old Testament law the Gentiles needed to keep.

That debate happened in Acts chapter 15. Page 1111. Let me read verses 28 and 29: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.”

4 things that the Gentiles need to abstain from. Food sacrificed to idols. Blood and the meat of strangled animals, which both refer to the Old Testament food laws. And sexual immorality, that word again.

Those 4 things are not all the same. If you look at Mark chapter 7, you will see that Jesus explicitly says that the Old Testament food laws don’t apply any more. He has made all foods clean. But he is also explicit that sexual immorality remains a sin, and he nowhere says that idolatry is now fine.

So here are 4 things that Gentiles need to abstain from. Two ancient food laws, that Jesus said we’re now free from. Read on in the New Testament: They asked Gentiles to hold themselves back for now, so as not to offend their Jewish fellow Christians.

The other two are things that Jesus taught do still apply. Food offered to idols, and sexual immorality. And sure enough, as you read on in the New Testament, those two pop up again and again. We’re still to avoid those things. And here in Revelation we get them as a pair.

So what does “sexual immorality” mean in Revelation? The same thing it meant in Acts 15. And the list of 4 things in Acts 15 is taken directly from two chapters of the Old Testament – Leviticus 17 and 18. Which means “sexual immorality” is shorthand for “all the stuff that Leviticus 18 doesn’t let you do”. You get a fair bit of detail in Leviticus 18, but “any sexual activity outside of marriage” is a pretty good way to sum it up.

Now, if all that detail slightly lost you, you can re-join us again. I’ve taken several minutes to try and show that what I’m saying is simply what it says. Jesus holds against these churches their tolerance. They are tolerating people who teach that it’s OK to worship other gods. They are tolerating people who teach that sex outside of the marriage of a man and a woman is just fine. And all I’ve been doing is showing us that this is what the words on the page say.

End of a rather long, but very important bracket.

The message to Thyatira deals with what you do when you start wondering if you’re on the wrong train. When it’s not just those outside the church who suggest the church’s teaching is out of date, but those within the church as well, even those within your church.

You start to wonder if you’re the one on the wrong track. What’s more, it looks like Jesus doesn’t care about this as much as he says he does. Those who teach this appear to be just fine. In fact, does he even know what’s going in Thyatira?

To answer that, Jesus explains exactly what he’s been doing. In verse 23, he says he will repay each one according to their deeds. Different people at Thyatira have been affected to different degrees, and Jesus treats each person just right.

3 responses to false teaching: Jezebel

First, there’s Jezebel herself. Why has she been allowed to carry on as she has? Because Jesus has given her time. Verse 21: “I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.”

Our TV is fully licensed. But the TV Licensing people take a while to catch up, so we’ve received several letters to “the occupier”, reminding us that we need a TV license. Fines come later. First, they give people time to get things in order.

Jesus has been incredibly patient with Jezebel. He’s given her lots of warnings, presumably through the church leaders. But she has no intention of changing her ways, and her time is now up. Verse 21: “So I will cast her on a bed of suffering”.

That’s Jezebel.

3 responses to false teaching: Co-adulterers

Then there’s others who have been influenced by her. They’ve believed the lie that it’s OK to worship other gods as well. Or they’ve believed the lie that other kinds of intimate relationships are OK. So they’ve started to compromise. They’ve not being loyal to the one true God, not in the way they live. Jesus calls them those who have committed adultery with Jezebel. That’s spiritual adultery. Not being faithful to God and his ways.

For them? Verse 23: “I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways.” Jezebel is out of time. But these guys still have time. Time to repent of the things Jezebel has been saying are OK. Time to come back to how God says we should live.

3 responses to false teaching: Children

Then there’s a third group. I take it these are people who have taken on Jezebel’s ideas, and begun to own them. They’re the second generation Jezebels. Trying to teach and influence others, get a wider audience for her ideas.

He calls them Jezebel’s children. They’ve also out of time, and in fact the consequences for them are serious. Verse 23: “I will strike her children dead”.

There are shortly to be some deaths in the congregation. It’s as serious as that. If you’ve read the book of Acts, you’ll have come across the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts chapter 5. Jesus doesn’t do this often. But he can actually take the lives of people who are destroying his church. And he does.

Isn’t it good we don’t live in a police state. There’s a proper judicial process. Wrongdoers are taken to caught, given a fair trial, and a just sentence. But just occasionally, someone is posting such an immediate danger to the public that the police have to open fire, and shoot to kill.

It would seem that, just occasionally, Jesus has to do the same thing, to keep his people safe.

Does he see? Does he act?

News of this will spread. Well, it would, wouldn’t it?

Verse 23: “Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.”

Does Jesus know what’s happening in Thyatira? Does he care? Will he do anything about it?

Very soon they’ll know that the answer is yes.

Look back to verse 18. Jesus has eyes like blazing fire. He sees through Jezebel’s lies. He knows everything. And he has feet like burnished bronze. He is a majestic and strong king.

Ordinary Christians

Now I take it most of us, if not all of us, are not Jezebel. We’re probably not her children, either. Some of us may be her co-adulterers, beginning to believe and to live the lie.

But most of us are just ordinary Christians. We know that we should worship only one God. We know that sex is for marriage. We’re trying to work out how to get our slightly messy and chaotic lives more into line with what God wants, and one step at a time we’re getting there. But it isn’t half confusing and unhelpful when we hear of Christian people teaching something contrary to what we thought the Bible had to say.

What does Jesus say to us?

It’s really very simple. It comes in verse 24: “Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, “I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.”

You’ll notice again the language of Acts chapter 15. Jesus has no new burden to add.

You’ll also notice echoes of the wonderful passage in Matthew chapter 11: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

If standards are slipping in the churches, the easiest thing for Jesus would be to start to tighten up. To tell us all the things we need to do, and not do, to remain faithful.

But he’s not a burden to follow. He’s a joy to follow. He doesn’t weigh us down with endless rules and regulations. He came to bring us true and lasting rest.

Education in this area is so competitive. To get into the right secondary school, university, or whatever: Endless targets, new challenges, exams and tests to pass. I’ve heard of pre-schools with entrance tests for 3 year olds. We lay burden after burden.

Contrast my driving instructor. He eventually told me not to have any more lessons. Just keep going as I was. Lots of practice. And the odd lesson so he can spot any bad habits I was inevitably picking up.

Jesus only has one instruction for us: “Hold onto what you have.” Jesus will come back, and when he does the church will no longer be the mixed bag it is at the moment. But until that day, we hold onto him. We hold onto his teaching. We don’t fall for the lies. We keep putting one foot in front of the other, loving Jesus, trusting Jesus, living for Jesus.

Stay on the train.


Jesus will deal with those who lead his servants astray. He’s patient, so he’ll do it in his own time. But he’s the king who sees and who will win.

Hold on to what you have until he comes.

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