Last time we looked at Jesus’ memo to the church at Ephesus and saw that, while a zeal to preserve the purity of God’s truth is a good thing for a Christian to have, it’s possible to take it too far. The church at Ephesus had made zeal for doctrinal purity such a central part of their thinking that they’d forgotten the true foundation of their faith, namely the mutual, self-sacrificing love that they’d known when they’d first become Christians.
Churches today can take zeal for doctrinal purity too far, just as Ephesus did. Yet it’s equally possible for churches today to go too far in the opposite direction and end up at the opposite extreme.
What do I mean by this? Let’s look at another of Jesus’ memos, the one to the church at Thyatira.
To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. 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. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. 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. 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’. To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations — that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’ — just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 2:18–29)
Thyatira was another city in what is today Turkey, originally a Roman military outpost that by the time Revelation was written had become an important centre for various trade guilds.
Like the church at Ephesus, the church at Thyatira first receives praise from Jesus. They too are commended for their perseverance – the attitude of willingness to keep going despite hardship – and their hard work in serving God.
Unlike Ephesus they are further commended for service motivated by love, good works being done in God’s name, something which they are continuing to do more and more of. This is what Ephesus, despite all of their zeal for purity and truth, were missing.
And yet Thyatira had disastrous problems too, in precisely the area where Ephesus was so strong. Jesus accused them of tolerating false teachers, mentioning one individual in particular to whom he refers as “Jezebel”.
It’s unlikely that there was a woman in Thyatira church who actually went by that name. It’s more likely that Jesus refers to her that way in order to compare her to a woman from the Old Testament.
The real Jezebel was a princess of Sidon who married Ahab, king of Israel, in the historical record of 1 and 2 Kings. Ahab had never been in any way faithful to Israel’s God, yet Jezebel’s influence led him to become even worse than he was before. Under her influence he began worshipping false gods from the nations around Israel, had a man murdered who wouldn’t sell him a piece of land, and had many prophets of Israel’s God put to death.
According to Jesus there was a woman who was doing exactly the same thing in Thyatira church, encouraging other Christians to take part in immoral or unfaithful practices, and Thyatira church was tolerating her teaching.
Bible commentaries suggest that the specific problem in Thyatira was that Christians were under pressure to take part in the communal festivals and celebrations shared by the trade guilds in the city. Two things that would typically be found at these events were, first, food sacrificed to idols and, second, prostitutes.
Anyone who was part of a particular trade was expected to take part in the ceremonies celebrated by its guild. To refuse to do so could well have put a Christian’s ability to trade or work at risk.
It seems likely that “Jezebel” was encouraging Christians to take part in these ceremonies, perhaps telling them that food sacrificed to idols and sleeping with prostitutes was nothing to worry about – both were a perfectly normal part of daily life in Greek/Roman society.
Jesus did not agree. He warns the Thyatiran Christians that “Jezebel”, who had already been given and ignored a chance to repent, would be severely afflicted, along with those who followed her, as an object lesson to all the churches.
Christians today can certainly relate to Thyatira’s position. How many of us would be in trouble of losing our jobs or even facing legal action if we were to, for example, openly confess a belief in the traditional Biblical position on marriage? Isn’t it so much easier to keep our mouths shut and tacitly go along with what the society around us says and does?
Thyatira, like Ephesus, despite their perseverance and service motivated by love, had a devastatingly serious problem that could not be ignored, and upon which Jesus planned to act most severely.
While Ephesus were commended for their zeal in investigating and stamping out false teaching, Thyatira were allowing false teachers a free run of the church.
On the other hand, while Ephesus were warned of imminent rejection for their lack of love in service to others, Thyatira were excelling in this area, more so as time went on.
Ephesus were at one extreme, Thyatira at the other. Both were in desperate straits despite excelling in other areas. Both had problems stemming from the same source: a lack of foundation.
Next time we’ll look at how that foundation should be applied in a way that avoids both extremes while embracing the good that both have to offer.