The Church that Tolerated a False Prophet

July 19, 2015 | Speaker: Bro Jurem Ramos

We continue our study of the Seven Churches mentioned in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. We have seen three churches so far: first, the orthodox but loveless church at Ephesus; second, the poor but rich church at Smyrna; third, the compromising church at Pergamum.  

Today, we are going to look at the fourth church that Jesus addressed in Revelation 2, the church at Thyatira, which is the church that tolerated a false prophet.

  To guide us in our study, we are going to follow an outline similar to our previous study when we looked at the letter of Christ to the church of Ephesus. First, let’s look at …  

The church addressed (v.18a)

18a “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write:   The character of the city of Thyatira.  
  1. Thyatira was the smallest and least important of the seven cities that the Lord Jesus addresses in Revelation 2 and 3. It was not a seat of government like Pergamum, nor was it an important center of religious worship like Ephesus where the Temple of Artemis stood, or like Smyrna and Pergamum which were major centers of emperor worship. Thyatira was originally only a military outpost town that was used maintained to protect the road from Pergamum to Sardis.
  1. But Thyatira was an important center of business and trade. Sir William Ramsey observes, “More trade guilds are known in Thyatira than in any other Asian city.”
  MacArthur: Thyatira was … known for its numerous guilds, similar to today’s labor unions. Its main industry was wool and dyed-good production, but inscriptions also mention guilds for linen workers, makers of outer garments, dyers, leather workers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave dealers, and bronze smiths. [Lydia, a seller of purple goods, was a native of Thyatira but had moved to Philippi. Lydia met Paul when he was at Philippi, and the Lord opened her heart as she listened to Paul's preaching. (Acts 16:14).] Unlike Pergamum or Smyrna, Thyatira was not an important religious center. The primary god worshiped was the Greek sun god, Apollo. The pressure faced by the Christians in Thyatira came from the guilds. To hold a job or run a business, it was necessary to be a member of a guild. Each guild had a deity in whose honor feasts were held, including meat sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. Christians faced the dilemma of participating or losing their job. [They were regarded as outcasts of society.] How some in the Thyatira church were handling the situation caused Christ great concern.   Although this church had been commended by the Lord Jesus for their virtues of love, faith, service and endurance, they had a great defect which was tolerating a female false prophet who was teaching and seducing the church to practice sexual immorality and idolatry.   According to tradition, the church at Thyatira ceased to exist at the end of the second century, having become a center of Montanism before dying.   (Montanism is a false prophetic movement in the second century led by Montanus who became a convert to Christianity around A.D. 170. He claimed he had the gift of prophecy, prophesying in an ecstatic manner. He was joined by two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, who also claimed to have the gift of prophecy and also prophesied in an irrational way. Church leaders strongly criticized this movement because of the unusual prominence of women in church leadership, their ecstatic manner of uttering predictions, their confident predictions that Christ would soon return and set up the New Jerusalem in an obscure village somewhere in Phrygia in Asia Minor (which was shown in time to be false), their stern asceticism which disrupted marriages, their long fastings, and many other practices that violated the authority and sufficiency of Scriptures.0  

A description of Christ (v.18b)

The letter begins with an identification of Jesus Christ drawn from the vision of chapter 1:14-15. ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.  
  1. The expression Son of God appears only here in this book. “Son of God” emphasizes Christ’s deity, stressing that He is of one essence with the Father. In Jewish thought, to be the son of a thing meant you had the nature of that thing. James and John were called by Jesus sons of thunder (Mk 3:17) perhaps because of their intense outspoken personalities. In Lk 9:54 they were the ones who said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them.”).  Barnabas means “son of encouragement because he was an encourager. So the Son of God has the divine nature, the nature of God.
  2. The expression, who has eyes like a flame of fire emphasizes the idea that Christ has the ability to see through all including the seductive teachings of false prophets. It also has the idea that the Lord looks with penetrating judgment.
  3. and whose feet are like burnished bronze convey the idea of strength and splendor and also the righteous judgment of Christ. Remember in our study in chapter 1 that God’s destruction of His enemies is sometimes represented by the trampling of them with His feet.

Christ’s diagnosis of the church (v. 19)

  The letter opens with praise for the believers in Thyatira: I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.  
  1. Christ commended the church at Thyatira before expressing rebuke to them. He knows about their works. Thyatira was the least significant city among the seven cities Jesus addressed, yet they were not hidden to Jesus. Like each one of the churches, Jesus says to the church at Thyatira, “I know your works.”
  2. "Works" is a general term which refers to good works in this context. Our Lord defines in greater detail what these works are by the four nouns in the list that follows (“I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance.”). Love and faith are the motives while service and patient endurance are the deeds that follow.
  3. First, the believers at Thyatira were showing “love” for God and for one another. Thyatira is the only one of the seven churches commended for its love. In contrast to the church at Ephesus that was rebuked because of departing from its first love (Rev 2:4), the church at Thyatira was commended for its growing love.
  4. Second, Christ commended them for their “faith.” The word “faith” may refer to trust in God or “faithfulness” to Christ, i.e., unwavering devotion in following Christ.
  5. Out of love grow “service.” Those who love will express it through serving others. This involved supplying of food to the needy. (1Jn 3:17-18 17 says, But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.)
  6. Out of faith or faithfulness grow “patient endurance.” This refers to withstanding hardship due to persecution.
  7. A greater commendation that the church at Thyatira receives from the Lord is this: “and that your latter works exceed the first.” Not only did the Thyatiran Christians possess the virtues of love, faith, service, and patient endurance, but they were constantly increasing.

Words of Reproof (vv. 20-21)

What Jesus has against the church at Thyatira.  
  1. Despite all the good Jesus sees in the church at Thyatira, there are significant problems. The problems are big enough for Jesus to say, “But I have this against you.”
  1. The sin of the church of Thyatira: that you tolerate that woman Jezebel. On the outside, they were a healthy church, showing good works, love, service, faith, and patient endurance. Yet there was corruption inside the church. The sin of the church was that they tolerated this corruption. In the words of Paul in 1Co 5:6 in the NLT: “Don’t you realize that this sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough?” In other words, tolerating the few who commit immorality and idolatry will corrupt the whole church - especially if they influence others the way this Jezebel did.
  1. The center of the corruption at the church at Thyatira is a woman Jesus calls “Jezebel.” This may not have been her real name, but a “title” that represents her character and influence.
  • Today, “Jezebel” is a name Filipino mothers use for their daughters especially because they associate that name with a beautiful mythical siren named Jezebel. But during OT times, the name Jezebel had a bad connotation. It was like calling a person a “Judas” or a “Hitler.” To call a woman “Jezebel” was considered the greatest insult imaginable.
  • Jezebel was one of the most evil characters of the Old Testament. Her story is found in 1 and 2 Kings. She was daughter of a pagan king, an idolater, a promoter of the Baal worship. When she married Ahab, one of the most evil kings of Israel, she began a relentless campaign to rid Israel of all worship of the true God and replace it with the worship of Baal. She ordered the killing of the true prophets of Israel. Her strongest enemy was the prophet Elijah who challenged her and the priests of Baal. Her influence over her husband and the nation was so strong that her reign, together with her husband’s was one of the saddest chapters in the history of Israel.
  • Who calls herself a prophetess: This “Jezebel” in the church of Thyatira wasn’t really a prophetess; she only claimed to be one. Yet, it seems that the Christians there received her as a prophetess. Most of the believers in that church failed to take heed to the warning of Jesus in Mt 7:15-16, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits.
  Perhaps one of the reasons for their poor discernment was because in both Old and New Testament periods, there were prophetesses. In the Old Testament there were Miriam (Exo 15:20), Deborah (Judg 4:4) and Huldah (2Ki 22:14); and in the New Testament there were Anna (Lk 2:36), and the four virgin daughters of Philip (Ac 21:9). Peter announced at the birth of the church on the Day of Pentecost that, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…” (Joel 2:28–32; Acts 2:17). So there were female prophets in the early church, but here at Thyatira the problem was a false female prophet. Her generosity or leadership or some other unusual gifts elevated to prominence. Only a small minority saw through her pious deception (v. 24); the rest followed her wrong teachings.  
  • Jesus describes the specific sin of this woman “Jezebel.” To teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. How did she influence them.
  • Remember what I said a while ago regarding the trade guilds in Thyatira. These organizations involved a great deal of idolatry and sexual immorality. Perhaps a Christian was invited to the monthly meeting of the guild of copper smiths, and the meeting was held at the temple of Apollo. By means of “prophetic” word “Jezebel” would encourage the man to go to their idolatrous worship and eat food offered to idols and commit sexual immorality.
  • Perhaps also, the men justified these acts because as William Barclay said, “No merchant or trader could hope to prosper or make money unless he was a member of his trade guild.”
  • Jezebel’s sin was so grievous because she corrupted the servants of Jesus. Jesus said in Mk 9:42, But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.
  1. Later in this letter, Jesus will also reveal another aspect of Jezebel’s false doctrine: some call the deep things of Satan (Rev_2:24). It seems that this Jezebel led others in the church at Thyatira to discover the deep things of Satan.
  How could Christians ever fall for the deep things of Satan?  Perhaps the deceptive reasoning went this way:  
  • EBCa: “The only effective way to confront Satan is to enter into his strongholds; the real nature of sin can only be learned by experience, and therefore only those who have really experienced sin can truly appreciate grace. So by experiencing the depths of paganism ("the deep secrets of Satan"), one will be better equipped to serve Christ or be an example of freedom to one's fellow believers (cf. 1Co 8:9- 11). Thus the sin of Jezebel was deadly serious because of the depths of its deception. Only a few perceived where the teaching was leading.
  • Thomas: to know the deep things of Satan [could mean] that one could venture into Satan’s strongholds to demonstrate the powerlessness of the enemy over him... They were probably part of the fanatical group in the province of Asia that held that a Christian could not sin (1Jn 1:10; 3:9). They were similar to the group in Corinth who shared in idolatrous feasts and prided themselves in their knowledge and strength in proving the harmlessness of such participation. … On this ground Jezebel encouraged her followers to participate fully as possible in the pagan society. A gnostically influenced Christian could well boast about knowing the deep things of Satan, because his “knowledge” told him that such things were unreal and harmless (1Co 8:1-4) or because he was so sure of his sinlessness (cf. 1Jn 1:8-9; 3:9) that he felt himself to be immune, i.e., beyond good and evil. The heretics rejoiced in their freedom in the Spirit to explore the sphere of Satan’s rule. They proudly claimed to have done so.
  1. Jesus’ greatest accusation of this “Jezebel”: 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.
  • WBC: This suggests that the exalted Christ has already denounced "Jezebel's" behavior in the past, either through the prophetic ministry of John or possibly through one of his prophetic associates, but that she has chosen not to respond.
  • Guzik: In these words we see both the mercy and judgment of our Lord. Time to repent shows mercy.  God gives us time to repent, we should deal with others the same way.  And she did not repent speaks to the judgment of God.  God gives time to repent, but it is not an unlimited time.  There is a time when God says, My Spirit shall not strive with man forever (Gen_6:3).  This means that when God gives us time to repent, we must take advantage of that time.

Words of exhortation (vv. 22-25)

  1. Before Jesus tells the Christians in Thyatira what they must do, He first tells them what He will do. Jesus will chastise this Jezebel: Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed. This is a Hebrew idiom that means "to cast upon a bed of illness," i. e., to punish someone with various forms of sickness. Perhaps this will lead to her death. She was not given another opportunity to repent because she refused to listen.
  1. The Lord Jesus warns but at the same time gives grace to the followers of this “Jezebel.” 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.
  "Those who commit adultery with [Jezebel]” do not seem to be confined exclusively to her followers or disciples; rather they include those who have been negatively influenced by her teachings, i.e., have practiced both the eating of meat sacrificed to idols and illicit forms of sexual behavior. This is also the meaning of “her children.” This may not refer to her literal children but all of those who pursue antinomian practices. If they repent Jesus will no longer punish them. But if they fail to heed his warning, he will strike them with disease and they will die.  
  1. The judgment would be so dramatic that all the churches (the seven and the universal church) will hear about the great distress with which these sinners are afflicted and that Christ is the One who searches hearts and minds. 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.
  NIVSB: according to your [works]. Judgment based on works is taught by Jesus (Mt 16:27) and Paul (Ro 2:6), as well as John (Rev 18:6; 20:12–13; 22:12)  
  1. There were faithful, uncompromising Christians in Thyatira. To them, Jesus says in 24-25, 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.  
  • “hold fast what you have.” That is, to hold on to the truth as it was revealed to them through the apostles and the Word of God.
  • Jesus also tells them how long to hold fast: until I come. We are to “hang in there” and stand strong for Jesus until He comes.  It’s only then that the battle will be over.

A promise to the overcomer (vv. 26-28)

  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. The citation is from Psalm 2 and applies to the Messiah. The Lord Jesus is saying that the authority He has been given over the nations will be shared with his followers. Christ promises believers who are faithful that they will join Him in His millennial rule.  
  • 2Ti 2:12 if we endure, we will also reign with him
  • 1Co 6:2-3 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels?
  • 20:4-6 - 4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years
  28 And I will give him the morning star.
  • Morning star may refer to the promise that in the messianic kingdom, the righteous will shine as stars as in Dan 12:3. There the promise is: "and those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever." This conclusion also resembles the promise of Mt 13:43 the “the righteous will shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” If this is so, then the morning star is the promise that believers will reflect the glory of Christ.
  • There are however other commentators who say that the morning star refers to Christ Himself.
  • John later reveals Christ to be “the bright morning star” (Rev 22:16 I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star).
  • 2Pe 1:19 NLT: You must pay close attention to what they wrote, for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place—until the Day dawns, and Christ the Morning Star shines in your hearts. Jesus is already in the hearts of believers when they receive Him into their hearts, but someday, we will have Jesus in his fullness.

A command to hear what the Spirit says to the churches (v. 29)

  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’   This is a letter that applies to everyone.  It applies to those who are like Jezebel, who lead others into sin.  It applies to those who follow the teaching of a Jezebel, and follow others into sin.  It applies to those who permit a Jezebel to work her wickedness.  And it applies to the faithful who must hold fast.    

Lessons that stand out in this letter:

  1. First, this letter reveals the seriousness of practicing and tolerating sin, and that God will judge sin in the church.
  1. Second, the temptations which these Christians faced in this city were connected with their work. Remember that Christians who made their living in trades connected to idolatry and immorality would always say that they have no choice if they had to make a living. A painter might find work in pagan temples or a sculptor might be hired to make a statue of a pagan god.  They would justify this by saying, “This is my living, and I must live.”  But one Christian leader, Tertullian replied, Vivere ergo habes?  “Must you live?”
  1. Third, God will repay each one according to our deeds. Rev 2:23 I will give to each of you according to your works
  Ideas and words from Dr. Raymond Rayburn, Pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church, in Washington, USA.   The Gospel is a message about the forgiveness of sins, of salvation as a free gift, of our righteousness before God being not our own righteousness but Christ’s righteousness reckoned to us when we trust in him.  
  • Eph 2:8-9 - For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast
  • Tit 3:5 - he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit
  But here the Lord addresses his church and says to them that they must obey; they must turn away from their sins and keep his commandments; they must practice deeds of faith and love or else. If they do not, the Lord says, I will take note of it and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.   The book of Revelation, to be sure, is full of the grace of God and the salvation of Jesus Christ that is ours by faith; but that notwithstanding, God’s people are told again and again to do the deeds of godliness, and to expect that they will be judged according to what they have done.  
  • Rev 22:12: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.”
  Of course, this is also a truth that we find everywhere in the NT:  
  • Mt 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
  • 2Co 5:9-10 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
  Here is the problem. Martin Luther said that in his day, if ministers taught in sermon the necessity of a godly and honest life, some men by and by attempted to build their own ladders to heaven, but if ministers taught that salvation consisted not in our works or life, but in the gift of God, some men took occasion from that to be slow in doing good works and to live a dishonest life.   What Luther was saying is that it was possible to make serious mistakes in either direction, legalism or antinomianism. But the bigger problem for evangelicals is antinomianism. Because of the nature of the gospel, people are making the very same conclusions taught by Jezebel in Thyatira. They were putting the garments of Christ’s righteousness as a cloak for sin.   And that is what they were, in fact, doing in Thyatira and what many Christians are doing today. They are trusting Christ’s cross to purify them of the contamination they receive by making their peace with the world and compromising with its ethics and its way of life. They were using Christ’s terrible death for our sin as an excuse for their sinning still more. But Jesus didn’t suffer and die to make it possible for you to live a worldly life with no consequences, to enjoy your sins and your salvation too. Christ died to make you holy; God’s grace appeared to teach us to say “No!” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age. Christ, Paul says, gave himself for us to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” [Titus 2:11-14]   So what does a Christian man or woman do who takes to heart this divine promise to repay each according to his or her deeds? I will tell you. He thinks about his life. He examines himself. He insists on being ruthlessly honest with himself about himself. He genuinely desires to see himself as Christ sees him who searches the heart. He appreciates that self-delusion is all too possible. And then he takes steps to put on godliness in the fear of the Lord. And he keeps doing so, day after day, week after week, year after year, until his sun is set and his day is done. All along the way he loves the Lord Jesus for the free gift of salvation and all along the way he obeys the Lord Christ in the prospect of the judgment day. That is what he does; that is what she does; that and nothing else.