Revelation 2: The church with many good works, but tolerated Jezebel
Our Lord Jesus Christ sent his fourth letter recorded in the book of Revelation to the Church at Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29).
Thyatira was a union city because of the dominance of trade guilds there. The guild controlled manufacturing, and without membership in the guild, one couldn’t trade. Idolatry was fundamentally connected with the guilds, and meetings were typically held in pagan temples. Worship of the gods, eating meat sacrificed to idols, and illicit sexual relations were required. Caesar worship was also a part of the mix. So, one’s occupation, ability to buy and sell, and ability to feed one's own family was a serious problem for the Christian wanting to be faithful to Christ.
Acts 16:14 records the conversion of Lydia to Christ under the preaching of the apostle Paul. She was a citizen of Thyatira, and some speculate the church there may have originated with her testimony. Perhaps because Lydia was a woman highly esteemed, it may have been the impetus for the rise of another influential woman in this church whom Jesus referenced as Jezebel.
Jesus said to the Church in Thyatira that they had a good reputation for their works, love, service, faith, and patience. This was a bustling church, and its activities were increasing (Revelation 2:19). They were outdoing themselves.
Still, Jesus dropped a bombshell, saying, “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce my servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols” (Rev. 2:20).
Anyone who knows a little about the Old Testament knows that Jezebel was the notorious and wicked queen of Israel during the ninth century (B.C.). Her tragic end was to be thrown from the palace window, trampled by horses and chariots, and her body eaten by dogs until there wasn’t enough left of her to bury. Jezebel’s great sin was establishing Baalism in Israel as the new religion. She seduced God’s people into idolatrous practices and sexual immorality, both serious sins.
It’s difficult to know whether a literal woman was leading Christ’s Church astray in Thyatira or if our Lord was giving false teaching in the Church the symbolic name of Jezebel. The name may be a way of saying the heresy was so prominent it had turned the precious bride of Christ into an iniquitous whore. When the Church unites with false religion and sells out to the value systems of this world, the Bible refers to this as spiritual whoredom.
The elders of the Church of Thyatira had allowed this unorthodoxy to spawn so that it had rendered the redemptive impact of Christ’s Church of no effect. It was swaying people the wrong way by compromising with paganism.
In other words, though what was proclaimed sounded like Christianity, this Jezebel teaching in Thyatira was actually an amalgamation of Christian thought mixed with worldly philosophies. It was philanthropic by nature and, in practice, Christian lite. There was no Cross to bear. It was easy believism. Worship of pagan gods and sexual immorality were permitted.
Unquestionably, it used high-sounding words, promising a new and higher level of spirituality. The tenets of this heretical doctrine probably sounded remarkably similar to what is often espoused today:
All religions, in some way, point to God and a better life. What’s most important about faith is that it makes us good, noble, and giving people. We need to be more inclusive and reach out by joining the pagans in their worship so we can share Christianity with them. Isn’t it better we participate with them than be wiped out by persecution? If we don’t compromise and go along with them, if we don’t get with the times, it may mean more than the end of us; it could also mean the end of our religion. Besides, maybe there’s something we can learn from them. Even if we partake in a bit of illicit sex now and then, the Lord will still love and forgive us. He understands. We must put away our hubris of believing and saying Christ is the only way. Isn’t it more loving and a higher form of spirituality to share a universal faith that includes the best from different religions, one that embraces everybody and excludes no one?
Does any of this sound familiar?
This is the doctrine of Jezebel. It is not entirely devoid of goodness or good works, but it is defective in the eyes of our Savior because it waters down the true Gospel of transforming grace with moral laxity.
Let’s get this straight, true salvation is not of works, giving anyone the right to boast of being good enough to earn it (Ephesians 2:8-9), but it does lead to the intolerance of sin! False doctrine is intolerable to our Lord. Moral permissiveness brings his judgment.
Christians must be tolerant of personality differences, quirks, and foibles among the brethren, but the Church must never tolerate violations of essential Christian doctrine and clear moral practice. Whenever the latter occurs, the Church must lovingly act with discipline to ensure the Church stays on the path of orthodoxy and right living. Exercising church discipline is not unloving, as some may charge. What’s unloving is for the Church to let false teaching stand and immorality remain unchecked.
Finally, another aspect of this letter to the Church in Thyatira must also be considered, and it is a painful one. The name Thyatira means “continual sacrifice.” It represents that time of the Church (590-1517), which marked the papacy and the ascendancy of the Roman Catholic Church.
Our Catholic friends’ significant error is the sacrifice of the mass by which there is said to be a “continual sacrifice” for the sins of the living and the dead. This teaching is a repudiation of the finished work of Christ — his one all-sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world on the Cross. It denies the Bible’s teaching of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone.
In his commentary on the book of Revelation, Steve Gregg argues:
“Uriah Smith wrote: ‘A more striking figure could not have been used to denote the papal abominations.’ As Jezebel caused Israel to worship the mother goddess Ashtaroth (called the ‘Queen of Heaven’ in Jeremiah 44:17, 18, 25), so the Church in the Middle Ages [Roman Catholicism] introduced the worship of Mary, ‘the Queen of Heaven.'”
M.R. Dehaan adds to this understanding, saying:
“It was during the centuries typified by the Church of Thyatira, called the Dark Ages, that the completeness of the finished work of Christ was denied, and to it were added works, ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices. That is why works are mentioned twice in the passage describing this Church, which had a religion of works and not grace ... the Church of Thyatira represents the Dark Ages ... It was during these years that the Vandals, the Huns, and the Goths overran Europe and brought with them their own idolatrous pagan worship. The Church, in a spirit of compromise, seeking to win them to professing Christianity, adopted part of their pagan idolatrous religion…with the result that there emerged from this age a Church that was partly Christian, partly Judaistic and partly pagan.”
Christ said he waited for Jezebel to repent, but she would not, which not only means the Church in Thyatira failed to turn away from their apostasy, but the false teaching of Jezebel will continue until the end of the age (v.21).
Thank God for tremendous men during this period of Church history like John Wycliffe, John Huss, William Tyndale, and Erasmus, who obeyed Christ’s command to the Church in Thyatira that said, “hold fast what you have till I come” (v. 25). If it had not been for them the faith as given to us by the apostles may have been lost.
We must “hold fast” as they did, lest Christ intervenes to protect his Church’s purity, lest we be severely judged with Great Tribulation for spiritual fornications, and lest the children of those who believe heresy should also be destroyed (vs. 22-23).
Jesus said there would be a fantastic reward for the faithful (v. 26-28).
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (v. 29).
Rev. Mark H. Creech is Executive Director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. He was a pastor for twenty years before taking this position, having served five different Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina and one Independent Baptist in upstate New York.