Thyatira: Not Tolerating Jezebel's Seduction
Topic: Perseverance of the Saints Passage: Revelation 2:18–29
One of the encouraging truths from our study in Revelation is that Jesus walks among his churches. He is near. He knows our needs. At the same time, Jesus’ presence is sobering. He exposes our sins. He weighs our faithfulness.
With Ephesus, we learned that alongside right doctrine and moral resilience, a faithful church must excel in love. With Smyrna, we learned that being faithful unto death is only possible when we’ve made ourselves rich in Jesus beforehand. Then with Pergamum, we learned that the greatest threats to the church are not outside but inside—when people inside the church compromise with the world.
The next message to Thyatira is like that message to Pergamum. Only here, the church has tolerated false teaching much longer. A so-called “Jezebel” has even seduced numerous church members into idolatry.
Sometimes we mock eastern religions for their many idols. But it wouldn’t be wrong to say the West provides some stiff competition. We’re less prone to bow to statues. But is it not the case that many bow to their stuff? For many, life revolves around affluence and possessions. Others idolize sex. From NFL cheerleaders to makeup labeled “Seduction” to overt pornography, our culture sells and enslaves image bearers to satisfy the god of sex. We’ve also exalted Self. In his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman observes how morality and meaning have shifted from objective truth in God to the subjective in self. Others make an idol of the state—many, even now, hoping the government will save us and bring us justice.
Whether it’s from things that entice us, things that we fear, things that we trust, things that we need[i]—idols aren’t hard to manufacture. They also have far-reaching consequences. According to 1 Corinthians 10, idolatry enslaves us to demons. Idolatry also dehumanizes people, treating them as means to get what we want or objects in the way of what we want. Idolatry also degenerates our person. Psalm 115:8, “Those who make idols become like them”—meaning useless and dead. Worst of all, idolatry robs God of the worship he alone deserves. Therefore, idolatry leads to judgment.
Knowing these far-reaching consequences, Jesus comes to care for his church, to correct where they have compromised with false teaching that accommodates idolatry. Listen to the way Jesus responds. Verse 18…
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. 19 I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 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. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 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, 23 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. 24 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. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 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. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Like the first three messages, Jesus begins this one with a vision of his glory. Faithfulness will always hinge on whether the church beholds Jesus’ glory. In this case, he begins with the title “Son of God.” Sometimes in Scripture that title speaks to Jesus’ divine nature. But to race there too quickly causes us to miss a significant point. John seasons this passage with allusions to Psalm 2, especially when we get to verses 26-27. Psalm 2—which you read earlier in the service—is the backdrop to this title.
In Psalm 2 sonship refers to God installing his anointed King to represent God’s rule over the nations. It’s repeating language from God’s promise to David—a promise to raise up an heir with a forever kingdom; and that son in David’s line would so manifest God’s rule on earth that to see him ruling is to see God ruling. Jesus is that Son. Read Acts 13:33, and you’ll find God installing Jesus in this role by resurrection.
Now, in a culture where Roman emperors labeled themselves “sons of the divine,” you could see how Jesus’ message is counter cultural. “Son of God?” you say. “That title belongs to only one man, Jesus Christ. Only Jesus truly manifests God’s rule, not Caesar. Only Jesus earned that title. God rewarded only Jesus’ obedience with an inheritance of nations and world-wide dominion.” All others are just pretenders.
Jesus is also a holy warrior. Verse 18 says, he “has eyes like a flame of fire” and feet “like burnished bronze.” That’s language from Daniel 10:5, describing a heavenly warrior. Think gleaming, polished armor here. We’ll see this imagery again in Revelation 19:12 where Jesus makes war against the rebel nations who have worshiped the Beast and practiced idolatry. In other words, if Jesus has been installed as God’s supreme King, if Jesus is the holy Warrior who will not tolerate false worship, we better listen up. We better heed what he says, especially in a culture teaming with idols and teachers who seduce people into false worship.
What Jesus Commends
So, what does he say? We’ll follow the same pattern observed in the other letters. We first encounter what Jesus commends. “I know your works.” Then he lists the works he has in mind. He commends their love. The church in Ephesus abandoned love; this church is full of love. Their love for God spills over into their love for one another. He also commends their faith—and the way it’s used elsewhere in Revelation, I take it as their faith in Jesus. They trust his word and remain loyal to his name. Next, he commends their service. That would include ministries to other saints in the church as well as ministries that spread the gospel. The last work he mentions is their patient endurance. Tribulation threatens them to abandon Jesus, but many have stood firm.
Not only that, but Jesus adds that they have matured in these works: “your latter works exceed the first.” Jesus has noted their growth. These church members haven’t remained stagnant. They started strong and got stronger in these ways. Paul often gave thanks in his letters when churches grew abundantly in their faith. He also prayed for churches to abound in love more and more. The over-riding assumption in the New Testament is that Christians will grow. We should all be maturing. Looking back, hopefully your latter works exceed the first. Jesus finds such growth commendable.
What Jesus Condemns & Threatens
But Jesus also finds something threatening this church’s health. The good things they have will disappear and even worse, if they continue tolerating Jezebel. We look now at what Jesus condemns and threatens. Verso 20, “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.”
Twice you read the words “sexual immorality” in the ESV. Usually, we understand that in a merely physical sense. But the first verb that’s translated “to practice sexual immorality” appears in the Old Testament to describe spiritual harlotry. “Playing the whore,” is how you’ve read it, especially in the Prophets. It speaks more to Israel abandoning her covenant Husband to run around with other lovers, other false gods—which might include sexual activity. But the point is broader. The picture speaks more to cheating on the Lord with false gods of all sorts.
That also matches what Jezebel did in the Old Testament—that’s the figure in mind. There’s not a woman actually named Jezebel in this church. Jesus uses the name “Jezebel” the same way he used “Balaam” in 2:14. Jezebel is a type, a symbol. She keeps reappearing throughout history. She just wears different clothes.
Who was this Jezebel? Jezebel appears in 1 Kings 16:29-32. She’s the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians. She is a Baal worshiper. Ahab was king in Israel and he takes Jezebel as his wife. She incites Ahab and Israel to worship Baal. She also cuts off God’s word from the people. God appointed prophets to condemn idolatry, but she kills them. In their place she lets false prophets eat at her table. She cuts off God’s word while coddling liars who agree with her. Later, in 1 Kings 21, she also leads men to falsely accuse Naboth, she has him killed unjustly—all to give Ahab the vineyard he wanted.
Later in 2 Kings 9:22, Jehu condemns Jezebel saying, “What peace can there be, so long as the whorings and the sorceries of your mother Jezebel are so many?” The Lord then kills Jezebel, she’s eaten by dogs, and he turns her body into dung (2 Kgs 9:36-37). That’s what God thinks of Jezebel. Not a great woman. She silences God’s word, she favors liars, she incites idolatry, she treats the innocent unjustly.
Apparently, the Lord finds people in his church tolerating “that woman Jezebel.” Very likely, there’s a specific teacher in view whose character lines up with Jezebel. But Jezebel stands for something greater. When you turn over to chapter 17, this Jezebel has a lot in common with the Great Prostitute who deceives nations, who gets people drunk off abominations, and who kills God’s servants. Also, the word describing Jezebel’s deception here is the same word applied to Satan, the Beast, and Babylon elsewhere. So, tolerating Jezebel is tolerating an entire Satanic system strategically plotting to undermine the worship of God and the Lamb.
Let’s put it this way: you are the Bride of Christ, but there are other “lovers” who will try to lure you away from your covenant Husband. There are other lovers like the women in Proverbs, Dame Folly, who lures God’s people into a trap. Jezebel is doing that here to the church. She’s dressing herself up pretty and preparing her bed while your Husband is away, and she’s standing on the street saying come lay with me. She’s pushing out God’s word from your life and whispering lies to get you okay with idolatry.
Now, there could be numerous reasons these Christians might’ve given into something like this. One of the most convincing to escape persecution and make yourself more successful. Numerous trade guilds ran their economy. But membership to these guilds was bound up with idolatry. If you wanted to make it, you got chummy with people at the temples. You sprinkled the incense and did whatever else to fit in with the crowd. Jezebel’s teaching would say, “It’s okay, you’ll have more influence this way. It’s okay, Jesus knows you have to be a citizen of Rome too. It’s okay, don’t you want to be all things to all men?” And slowly the church gets comfortable with idols. Slowly the church starts looking more like the world and less like a kingdom of priests.
But the Lord knows Jezebel’s evil. He’s jealous for God’s exclusive worship. What’s amazing is the Lord’s patience, here. He says, “I gave her time to repent.” We’re not told how, but Jesus confronted her before. He’s slow to anger. But she refuses to repent of her harlotry. So, Jesus says, “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.” The children are those who decide to follow Jezebel instead of Jesus. Jezebel is their queen mother.
For those who refuse to repent, Jesus threatens them with the same plagues he will pour on the earth in judgment. Only, he would do it soon. The NET does a better job: “Behold, I am throwing her onto a sickbed.” Jesus wasn’t waiting any longer. Judgment would fall swiftly, and at least one of his goals would be this: “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.” That reminded me of Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5. They lie to the Holy Spirit to keep their money and God kills them on the spot. The text then says, “Great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.”
If you choose to go to bed with Jezebel, God will give you a bed of judgment. You won’t be able to hide either. He knows you. He searches mind and heart. His gaze pierces your deepest motives. He knows when we accommodate the world’s lies. He knows when we’re just giving him lip-service while coddling idols. But his warning is a gift. He means to turn from idols to serve the living and true God.
What Jesus Promises
Not everyone bought Jezebel’s lies, though. Some had remained faithful, and the Lord has amazing promises for them. Verse 24, “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.” Jesus makes two promises for the faithful.
One is that we get to reign with Jesus. He says, “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.” That’s Psalm 2 again—the nations may rage against the Lord, but they will not get the final word. Jesus will. God has appointed him to rule the nations. Revelation 19 repeats the same words and applies them to Jesus. Jesus will “strike down the nations” with his word and “Jesus will rule them with a rod of iron.” In some sense, though, those who are faithful get to participate in that rule.
The second promise is this: “I will give him the morning star.” What’s that? Jesus mentions it one other time in 22:16. He says, “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.” Jesus identifies himself as the morning star. To give us the morning star is to give us himself—but there’s more to it than that.
He will give us himself in the fullness of his reign over evil. There was a prophecy in Numbers 24:17. God forced Balaam to prophecy blessing over Israel; and included in that prophecy are these words: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.”
Where else is there a promise for one who will crush the head of evil? The seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15, right? He would crush the Serpent’s head. Using that same imagery, Balaam’s prophecy foresees a star, a ruler, a king. He will rise out of Israel and crush the enemies of God’s people. That star is Jesus. His coming will rise like a bright morning star, and the glory of his reign will outshine all others. You will receive that gift if you hold fast what you have until he comes.
How, then, do we hold fast?
How, then, do we hold fast in a culture like our own teaming with idols and false teaching? Jezebel is still seducing churches. Jezebel has corrupted entire denominations. I grew up in the PCUSA. Instead of upholding the testimony of Jesus about sexuality and marriage, the PCUSA compromised with the world’s idols. In the late nineties, I can remember elders debating whether it was permissible to ordain those practicing homosexuality. They approved that in 2010. They approved same-sex marriages in 2014. In 2018 those embracing transgenderism could be members.
The PCUSA is not alone in this deception. Jezebel has also led numerous Christians into other forms of sexual idolatry. Covenant Eyes reports that “64% of Christian men and 15% of Christian women say they watch porn at least once a month.” Don’t shake your head at liberal denominations, if you’re looking at porn or giving into sexual acts outside of marriage or doing whatever else happens with Jezebel in the dark. If that’s you, she has deceived you as well, and you need to repent. Churches have made too many excuses for those stuck in patterns of sexual sin.
There are also Christians pushing critical theory—whether they do this knowingly or from ignorance. Neil Shenvi observes that critical theory “views reality through the lens of power” with each person’s fundamental identity not rooted in the image of God but reduced to a group, whether by race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.[ii] These ideas are infiltrating churches and leading people to worship themselves and their group. If you’d like to see a few examples of how that’s happening, Niel Shenvi has an article online titled “Critical Theory within Evangelicalism.” This is yet another way Jezebel’s teachings are harming the church’s obedience.
Or consider another example. My brother helped plant a church in the northeast. Later, they merged with an older congregation who, for years, had the American flag stationed at the front. The previous elders wanted to remove the flag but didn’t because of the backlash. The new set of elders did remove it—explaining why from Scripture—and some of the members were angry. Their anger revealed an allegiance to America over Jesus’ kingdom. They wanted Jesus, but only insofar as he was wrapped in red, white, and blue. That’s comparable to Jezebel’s allegiance to Rome.
You might even run into a situation at work much like the first-century Christians found themselves in. Your employer might put you in a place where you must bow to the cultural norms—use these pronouns, sign this document, attend this parade, wear this shirt—or you lose your job. You might have fellow employees pressuring you to fit in with their group; and you find yourself tempted, wanting to fit in—laughing at their crude jokes, joining their sins. Jezebel tempts the church to bow before social acceptance, to bow before peer pressure, instead of bowing to Jesus’ word.
Jezebel’s seduction is alive and well. So, how can we remain faithful? How can we hold fast what we have? One, let the patience of Christ lead you to repentance. Many of you have not been deceived by Jezebel. You are following Jesus faithfully. You’re among those who don’t know the deep things of Satan. You find Jesus’ words an encouragement to press on in your endurance. But some of you may be thinking, “Oof! I think I’ve been listening to Jezebel’s lies.” If that’s you, give thanks you’re still alive, praise God for his patience, and now walk out repentance. If you need help doing that, that’s what the church is for. Find a faithful brother or sister and ask them for prayer and for help and for guidance to turn you from your idols.
Second, check your own motives/desires. With eyes like flames of fire, Jesus searches mind and heart. Jezebel’s teaching becomes attractive when she feeds us what we want to believe. In 2 Timothy 4:3 Paul wrote that a “time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions…” It’s so easy to listen to those who tell you what you want to hear anyway. I read an article this week by a Hebrew teacher claiming that the phrase “male and female” in Genesis 1 isn’t binary but two ends of a gender spectrum. If your passions want transgenderism to fit Scripture, you will ignore context and the poetic structure and natural order—all to find a teaching that suits your passions. You will force the text to say things to accommodate your idols.
The same would be true if you’re particularly passionate about America or your safety or your possessions or your job or your political party or your comforts—if we’re not careful, our passions will distort God’s word to accommodate our idols. Be careful. Cry out, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! See if there be any grievous way in me…” (Ps 139:23-24).
Third, devour God’s word to discern the false promises of idolatry. Jezebel will always attempt to cut off God’s word from God’s people. If she can drown out God’s word, people won’t be able to discern idolatry because they won’t know the true God from false ones. Stay in your Bibles. [There’s a plug for the How to Grow class!] Some of you are reading lots of things during the week—lots of Facebook, lots of news media, lots of books and blogs—but you rarely pick up your Bible. If that’s you, you’re in danger. Set aside time every day to read the Scriptures. The Scriptures expose idolatry’s emptiness and false promises. The Scriptures also reveal the glory of the one true God.
Which leads to a fourth point, set your mind and heart on the glory of Christ. That’s where Jesus begins his letters. He begins with a vision of his glory and then he keeps pointing the churches back to that glory. Remember, from Romans 1, that the root of all idolatry is exchanging the glory of the immortal God for something lesser. We must reverse that. We must adore the glory of God, not exchange it. 2 Corinthians 3:18—we are transformed by “beholding the glory of the Lord.” The more you see of Jesus’ glory, the less compelling idols become.
When Paul preached the gospel in Thessalonica, he says this in 1 Thessalonians 1:3-9. “Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” He also adds this: “you received the word in much affliction…” Christ was preached; Christ was received. And here’s the result: “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” Preach the glory of Christ to one another. Christ alone frees people from idolatry and makes them true worshipers.
Fifth—to the elders of this church, including myself and other men who aspire to eldership—teach sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it. That’s a quote from Titus 1:9. It’s not enough to teach sound doctrine, brothers. We must also rebuke when people contradict sound doctrine. Too many stories where someone enters a church. They give generously. They serve like crazy. Everybody loves them. But over time they start mixing in ideas from the world. And the pastors decide not to address it since it might offend people or impact giving or disrupt church life. And slowly, Jezebel drowns out God’s word. Brothers, this takes a lot of work and careful attention. It requires alertness, diligent study, and hard conversations. But Christ is worthy of our efforts, and Christ appointed us to help his Bride endure, undeterred by other lovers. When leaders don’t speak up, churches go down with Jezebel.
Sixth—this one we do together, church—patiently teach one another and practice discipline when unrepentance persists. We have a responsibility to help each other understand the Scriptures. Elders equip the church. Parents equip children. Older women disciple younger women. Older men disciple younger men. As we’re given the opportunity, we all teach one another. We also do this with patience. Just because you get something wrong doesn’t mean the church is coming after you. We’ve all got something in our understanding of Scripture that needs correction and refinement.
But if there comes a point that someone is shown the truth from Scripture, and they reject it and keep teaching others to the contrary, then the church must act. We want to approach this as Jesus did—he gave her time to repent, but he never tolerates idolatry in the church. Some things in life we must tolerate—like differences on holidays or how best to structure gathered worship or which policies best serve the free market. But when it comes to this holy priesthood, we cannot tolerate idolatry. It’s not loving to do so. Idolatry destroys image bearers and robs Jesus of worship.
Lastly, if you’re in Christ, do not fear persecution, you belong to a kingdom that will conquer the nations. Taking a stand against the world’s idols will lead others to mock you and persecute you and make life miserable for you. You might have to make choices one day that puts your family in a hard place, because faithfulness to Jesus will mean you can’t be successful economically, you can’t own the things you own now, you can’t buy and sell like you used to. In those moments, do not fear. The Morning Star is rising. His kingdom will prevail. His enemies will be crushed. His word will make the world right again. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
[i] Christopher Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 166-71, lists these four categories from which we tend to make idols/false gods.
[ii] Niel Shenvi and Pat Sawyer, “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity,” The Gospel Coalition (May 15, 2019), accessed at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/incompatibility-critical-theory-christianity/.