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Five Ways a Church Becomes Tolerant: The Church of Thyatira

Christian Living

by Pilgrim Benham

Five Ways a Church Becomes Tolerant: The Church of Thyatira

"For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?" (1 Peter 4:17).

If the church of Pergamum is an example of the compromising church that is taking the first kiss toward sin, then the church of Thyatira is the church that has completely gone to bed with idolatry and is suffering the life-threatening side effects of immorality. The longest letter written by Jesus to the seven churches was necessary to correct what could very well be the most corrupt of all the churches.

We are studying the seven churches of Revelation chapters two and three. In chapter one, we saw John the Apostle, exiled to the island of Patmos, in which he turned around to see Jesus in His unveiled, resplendent glory, with a message to seven distinct churches in the region of Asia Minor. These were seven literal churches, who needed to heed the words Jesus brought to them. But these words also apply to every church in history and to the greater body of Christ at large.

We've already heard Jesus speak to the churches of Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum. And now we are going to hear Him speak to the church of Thyatira.

If you are taking note, there is a very helpful outline to follow along and better understand each of the seven churches. In each letter, we have been learning more about each distinct city, along with a characteristic of Christ from Revelation one. Jesus gives almost every church a commendation, a criticism and a correction, as well as a crown for the one who overcomes.

CITY

A few things about Thyatira are very important. First, it was the headquarters for many ancient guilds: the potters, tanners, weavers, robe makers and dyers guilds. It was actually the center of the dyeing industry (no pun intended). Remember Lydia, the seller of purple, in Philippi? She became Paul's first convert in Europe. Acts 16:14 tells us that Lydia was from Thyatira. Apollo, the sun god, was primarily worshiped here.

It sounds pretty significant, but actually, it was the smallest and most unimportant city Jesus spoke to. The elder Pliny dismissed Thyatira with the almost contemptuous phrase, "Thyatira and other unimportant cities." It is interesting that this is seemingly the most insignificant church of all the seven churches, but Jesus had the most to say to them.

How does Jesus address them? Look at the characteristic of Christ in verse 18.

CHARACTERISTIC OF CHRIST

"These things says the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet like fine brass."

This is not the introduction the Thyatirans were hoping for. Jesus says He is the SON OF GOD, giving His authoritative place in the Trinity. Then, He refers to His eyes, which are like blazing fire, seeing all things we think are unseen. His feet are like burnished bronze, like a refining fire melting brass. When Jesus says there is fire in His eyes, He isn’t talking about a romantic stare with eyes of deep passion. It means eyes that see through the pretenses, eyes of judgment. Our culture doesn't particularly like the idea of someone looking at us with judgment, but Jesus' penetrating gaze is ultimately to heal, not condemn. He also has feet of brass or bronze. Bronze is always Biblically symbolic of judgment. It’s like when your parents used to call you by your first, middle and last name; you don't know what is coming, but whatever it is, it's gonna be bad, right?

So why is Jesus coming to judge this church? Look at the commendation of Jesus in verse 19.

COMMENDATION

“I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first."

1) Works:
This fellowship had hard workers that were known for their actions, not just their beliefs.

2) Love:
The church at Thyatira, in contrast to Ephesus, had love for many people. In fact, they are the only church that Jesus commended for having love. But this could prove to be a downfall.

3) Faith:
Their deeds and love were motivated by their faith in Christ.

4) Service:
This church was heavily involved in ministry and in serving others.

5) Patience:
They had patient endurance/steadfastness.

6) Doing More:
Their latter works exceeded the first. That means they were growing in their faith, not just resting in something God did for them in the past.

I look at the church today, and I wonder if the same commendation could be said of us: We have great deeds, love, faith, service, persevere. We are doing more now than ever. Someone may read Jesus' words up until this point and stop there and think, "Ok, wow, that church should get a straight A!

But sadly, there is a criticism, and it is a scathing rebuke by Jesus that basically flunks this church.

CRITICISM

"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. And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works (Revelation 2:20-23).

Wow, that's heavy. Sadly, the church in Thyatira had (if you can believe this!) too much love. (That is actually an incorrect statement, and I'll clarify what I mean in a moment!) Ephesus was strong in doctrine but lacked love. Thyatira was strong in love but weak in doctrine. They weren’t willing to disagree with anyone about doctrinal heresies.

One person has said:

"It’s common for churches to be polarized in one of these two extremes. Either they will have full heads and empty hearts, or full hearts and empty minds. Either polarization is deadly. God demands both love and sound doctrine" (see 1 Timothy 1:5).

Table salt is a compound, a mixture of two elements: sodium and chloride. Both of these elements are poisonous by themselves. Sodium, an alkali metal, can be explosive if added to water, and chlorine is by itself a highly poisonous gas. If you ingest either sodium or chloride alone, you will die. But if you put them together properly, they become sodium chloride: common table salt.

So too, doctrine and love must be found together. One without the other can lead to a dangerous imbalance. But combined they provide flavor and health to the body of Christ.

Some would say this church was strong on love and weak on doctrine. But I question that exact definition. Because if we understand love correctly, would we really say they loved too much? I believe they bought into the lie that says you can love someone without truth. But love without truth isn't love. It's infatuation. It's concession. It's masqueraded hatred. Because if I truly love someone, I'm not going to withhold truth from them which would lead to their destruction. If I do, that means I'm indeed loving: I'm loving myself and my comfort, but I'm not truly loving the other person.

Jesus said the church in Thyatira TOLERATED Jezebel. Now obviously no one would name their daughter Jezebel (that’s like naming your kid Pilgrim or something:). No, Jezebel here is a symbolic name. She represents the despicable woman from 1 Kings. If you remember, king Ahab was basically the most evil and dirty and demonic king that ever reigned in Israel, and he married this evil woman Jezebel.

And as soon as he married her, Ahab began to serve and worship Baal, the false god that was constantly a thorn to Israel. Jezebel led people to commit sexual immorality and to offer their food to idols. And Ahab, toward the end of his life, developed a sudden thread of a conscience, after he heard what God had to say. You can read about it in 1 Kings 21. But as long as he was with Jezebel, he was tempted to sin gravely against the Lord.

Jesus said that Jezebel was committing sexual immorality and was teaching and seducing people to do the same. Someone reading this blog post may say, "Well I don't struggle with that, so I'm good!" But before we think we are off the hook, Scripture calls idolatry the same thing as spiritual adultery, like an unfaithful wife leaving her husband. So Jezebel in a sense represents things in our life that lead to idolatry--to worshiping things instead of God.

Jesus says He is graciously giving her time to repent--like He gives all of us--like Ahab had time and actually DID repent. Yet this Jezebel in Thyatira didn’t change her ways, so He would cast her onto a sickbed. Notice that He says that people who commit adultery with her will also face consequences, in this case--dead children--meaning more consequences of their sin.

Jesus said that if they did not repent, they would eventually die. And notice He says all will know that, "I am He who searches the minds and hearts." Literally that means the hearts and kidneys. To the ancient Jews, the heart was the seat of the intellect, and the kidneys were the centerpiece of emotion. He's saying, "I know every thought and feeling you have" (Psalm 139:23-24)

Note with me that the perennial problem with the church of Thyatira was that they tolerated Jezebel's doctrine. Ephesus was commended, back in verse two, for not "tolerating wicked men, but testing those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false." Here Thyatira is criticized for allowing sinful heresy into the body of Christ.

Though Thyatira would get an A+ on a lot of areas, there was one area that made them flunk the exam.

In a word, the church was tolerant. First, there is:

1. A desire to fit in with the culture

How does a church that is solid suddenly become tolerant of heresy and sin? It isn't always sudden, actually. We are growing up in a culture that embraces POSTMODERNISM. What is postmodernism? It is a whole system that basically teaches that we can’t really know anything for sure, that truth changes, and as long as you believe it personally enough, it is true for you. In other words, there is no absolute right and wrong, and if you can’t allow me to believe what I believe, you are racist or a bigot, and you are intolerant.

Allan Bloom said:

"Openness - and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings -- is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all."

I’ve heard this same idea echoed in a million and one college dorms, Starbucks, news reports and community groups. It is the issue of absolute truth and tolerance. So we have to desire to please Jesus, not just fit in with the culture around us.

2. A failure to rightly define sin

We no longer call sin what it is: lawlessness, rebellion, treason, spiritual adultery, breaking God's laws and commands. We start wanting to use new words that don't sound so offensive. So we stop saying, "sin" and start saying "struggle," or "disease," or "disorder." While we're at it, we start coming up with new definitions of other words, even the word "tolerance."

In D.A. Carson’s book The Intolerance of Tolerance, he brings us back to the original word “tolerance” as it was defined in the dictionary. You could say we now have "Old Tolerance and New Tolerance."

"The traditional/modernist use of tolerance: 'I may disagree with you, but I insist on your right to articulate your opinion, no matter how stupid or ignorant I think it is.'"

But New Tolerance is very different. The United Nations Declaration of Principles of Tolerance in 1995 asserts: “Tolerance involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism.”

Does this mean that we have no right to hold conflicting things to be dogmatically true? The national Lambda Chi Alpha position says,“The definition of the new tolerance is that every individual’s beliefs, lifestyle, and perception of truth claims are equal. There is no hierarchy of truth; your beliefs, and my beliefs are equal and all truth is relative.”

Hint: by definition that means that "tolerant" people are intolerant of Christians.

3. Forsaking absolute truth for relativism

Thankfully Christians still believe in absolute truth, right? Actually, I was discouraged to see these sad statistics that were just released recently by the Barna Research group:

Only 44 percent of born again adults are certain that absolute, moral truth exists. Barna also discovered that only 9 percent of born again teenagers believe in absolute, moral truth.

D.A. Carson, again, explains that:

"Now tolerance means that you must not say that anybody is wrong. You have to say that all positions are equally valid."

4. Moving close handed issues into open handed ones

The Christian believes there are open handed issues and close handed. And we must never, EVER begin to open the close handed issues for debate.

This begins with questioning a foundational, Biblical doctrine. Then the questions get considered, and suppositions get formed. Then those turn into arguments to defend. And before you know it, we have a full blown heresy. I like what C.S. Lewis said,

“An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut."

Many scholars believe Jezebel was encouraging the church to join the trade guilds of Thyatira, even though that would mean giving honor to the guild god or goddess which included participating in the festivals where they sacrificed food to idols. She wanted the church to embrace the world even if that meant fully compromising your beliefs to reach people with "love."

5. Failing to take a stand for truth

What does the Bible say about how we should react to heresy?

Here are a few verses:

"Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith" (1 Timothy 6:20-21, NIV).

"Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives' tales; rather, train yourself to be godly" (1 Timothy 4:7, NIV).

"For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced...rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith" (Titus 1:10-13, NIV).

"But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless" (Titus 3:9, NIV).

Did you catch how Paul instructs us to do with heretic doctrine and those who teach it? Turn away, have nothing to do with, silence them, rebuke them, avoid their teaching. Kind of the opposite of what the word "tolerate" means, doesn't it?

I believe we are in danger of doing the same thing: tolerating a bunch of ridiculous beliefs, because, like Thyatira, we are too scared or too "loving" to speak the truth. We are afraid we will lose our friends or the argument, so we sit idly by and allow ignorance and even heresy to infiltrate the church.

Martin Luther King Jr. said it best when he said:

"There comes a time when silence is betrayal...Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I believe we live in a day when the church tolerates Jezebel.

May we boldly stand for truth: absolute truth. Keeping the close hand closed. Rightly defining tolerance. Standing up for truth even when we stand out compared to our culture.

CORRECTION

“Now to you I say, and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine, who have not known the depths of Satan, as they say, I will put on you no other burden."

Jesus called Jezebel's practice a "doctrine." He described it as "the depths of Satan." What does that mean?

Smyrna was attacked by a synagogue of Satan. Pergamum dwelt where the throne of Satan existed, but those churches had resisted Satan. Thyatira, on the other hand, had fallen into the deep things of Satan. Notice in verse 24 that Jesus said this to "the rest." There were some in the church that wouldn't put up with false teaching, and Jesus said,"I put on you no other burden." That should be our response. Don't put up with heresy.

"But hold fast what you have till I come."

I love that! Jesus doesn’t give us any big command or burden; He just says, “Whatever you already have, just hang onto it; I won’t lay some big heavy command on you.” I think sometimes we think God has this huge laundry list of DO’s and DON’Ts for us, and we just have to barely hang on by a thread, trying to impress Him. He says to the weary soldier, “just hold the line, don’t let go; I’m not laying more weight on you than what you already have.”

Some reading this blog may barely be hanging on. You feel like giving up or giving in. And Jesus says, "Just hold fast what you have. Don't let go. I'm coming quickly."

For those in Thyatira with sound theology and robust doxology; nothing more is needed! Just hang on to truth and your love of Jesus! Now notice the reward.

CROWN

"And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations—‘He shall rule them with a rod of iron; they shall be dashed to pieces like the potter’s vessels—as I also have received from My Father."

Here Jesus references Psalm 2, another reference to judgment. In Thyatira there was a big pottery guild, and Jesus is saying He will give us authority, like He was given from the Father to rule over the nations. We don’t need to be afraid that we are some minority that is on the losing team. We have been given authority, and truth will win in the end! Jesus has all authority, and those who oppose His authority will be crushed in judgment.

"And I will give him the morning star."

Satan is known as the morning star in one reference, and Jesus is saying, “This world might think it has the brightness and the beauty, but I will give the overcomers the true morning star, the judgment AND the illumination, MYSELF.” Jesus is referring to Himself, as a bright star of the morning.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”’

The name "Thyatira" means sacrifice or sacrificial offering. Isn't that interesting? They as a church were willing to sacrifice their faith on the altar of compromise. And what began as a small compromise into a little false doctrine quickly became them sacrificing truth in order to accept others. Abandoning what is true for what is convenient.

In 1979 Arthur Leff, a Yale law professor spoke at Duke University and expressed how torn human beings are over this issue of absolute truth and the desire for it and the hatred we feel for it.

Here’s what HE said:

"I want to believe—and so do you—in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe—and so do you—in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it."

The reality is, truth is found not in a principle but in a person. Jesus said, "I am the Way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."

Just minutes before being crucified, Jesus said to Pilate in John 18:37-38:

"'For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.' Pilate said to him, 'What is truth?'”

Imagine that: The One who had the words of truth, better than that, was filled with the Spirit of truth, better than that, embodied the belt of truth, the One, unlike Moses through whom the law came, who was incarnate in the world bearing grace and truth, better than that, He WAS the Truth, was standing right in front of Pilate, who in a single question dismissed the discussion with a wave of his hand.

There aren't multiple ways to God. There is only one way, and His name is Jesus. He is the door. He is the bright morning star. Rather than sacrifice truth on the altar of acceptance like this church, Jesus was instead betrayed, cast out and nailed to a tree. He made the ultimate sacrifice, so that we could know the truth.

Do you know Him? Do you have ears to hear Him?

Underneath this large oak tree in my yard there is not much grass growing because of the leaves that fall in the autumn, but for the last few years, a large percentage of weeds would grow quickly and provide green ground cover during the spring and summer. And thankfully, they were green. They appeared to the naked eye as grass. But in actuality, they were weeds.

Some friends of ours happened to have some extra sod, and they offered it to us. We found a patch by our porch that would work perfect with some sod, so we laid a bunch of new grass down and began watering it and maintaining it. It was green, healthy and beautiful. At the same time, these ground cover weeds under the oak tree were spreading everywhere. Eventually, they found their way into our sod--the good grass.

At that point, I had a decision to make. Do I take the time to pull up the weeds and protect the grass? Do I put the effort and attention needed into removing what is unhealthy in order to preserve what is healthy? The answer was yes and no. Yes, I began to remove weeds, but no, not fast enough and not long enough. The weeds eventually took over and snuffed out the good grass.

That's what happened to the church in Thyatira. Church history records that by the second century, they were no longer in existence. They didn't repent. They didn't heed these words.

Is there an area in your life--which seems maybe small or insignificant--perhaps it is doctrinal or practical, or on the border of sinful--and you aren't paying attention to it? Like Pergamum, are you beginning to compromise your beliefs or your behavior?

We can keep tolerating sin, but one day, its destructive effects will take hold of us. Like carcinogenic toxins, sin will slowly kill us, one day at a time, one bad decision after another. My prayer is that we will stand for truth, keep His word to the end and be the church that is known for speaking the truth in love.

Enjoy the complete #modernchurch series!