Revelation #10 Judgmental Jesus

glowing Jesus

Jesus has some very harsh words for those who claim to be Christians, yet do not repent. He has no trouble being judgmental toward Christians who are tolerant of such people. But He offers strength to those who hold on to Him, and the promise of His own fully satisfying Eternal Presence as compensation for the things we lose in this life by following Him.

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Revelation #10. Revelation 2:18-29

There were two small children who had been giving their mother quite a bit of trouble one day. After numerous battles, accidents and minor emergencies, bed-time arrived at last. The woman finally got them safely installed in their beds (which were in the same room) and sat down to few moments of time for herself. She decided to use the time to “baby” herself, so she donned her old raggedy bathrobe, applied a facial cosmetic mask, and sat down to do her nails. Alas, it was not to be. The children were causing a rumpus in their bedroom. She raced into the room, her hair up in towel, the facial mask still in place, and yelled and screamed and ordered them to be quiet. Shocked, they obeyed, and said they were sorry. As she was leaving the room, the mother heard the younger one whisper to the older, “who was that?”

It may be that this was how the church of Thyatira felt when they got their message from Jesus. Jesus revealed himself to them through what may have been a shocking, unfamiliar image. This is what he “looked like”:

“The Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire and His feet are like burnished bronze (v.18)”

This is the only time that Jesus identifies himself as the “Son of God,” and I think there is no mistake in it. Jesus wants there to be no “ifs” “ands” or “buts” about his authority in Thyatira. His Word is absolute. Not only does he come to them in authority, but he comes in anger. The “eyes like a flame of fire” seem to denote that Jesus is not pleased with what has been happening here. It might be said that his eyes are flashing in anger. And finally, the feet like burnished bronze seem to indicate judgment. He is about to trample under his feet those who oppose him.

Immediately after this terrifying picture of Jesus, He begins, as usual, by praising the Christians at Thyatira for some things: love, faith, service and perseverance. Not only that, but He tells them that He knows that they are doing more now that they were at the beginning – in other words they are growing in love and good deeds. Why then, is Jesus revealing Himself as coming in judgement and anger?

Thyatira was not an important city, like Ephesus, Smyrna or Pergamum. It was not a center of either emperor worship, or pagan religion, although both practices were no doubt common there. Instead, the city was basically a “blue-collar” area, an ancient Pittsburgh or Peoria. Several trade and craftsman guilds had their headquarters in Thyatira, and the city apparently was a center for traded goods. It would be safe to assume that many of the people there belonged to a craftsman guild or some sort of “trade association.” In fact, it would have been difficult to participate in trade or industry without membership in the appropriate guild. In some ways, these guilds might be similar to the labor unions at the height of their power during the middle of the 20th century. If you want a job, you belong to the guild. Period.

The problem, however, was this. These trade guilds regularly held “common meals” which were probably dedicated to some pagan god or other. Many of the Christians felt that they had to participate in these feasts or risk losing their livelihood. We can imagine the sorts of rationalization that would be employed. Idols and pagan deities are not real gods, some would argue, so the Christian should be able to attend without compromising his commitment to the one true God. There was an additional complication, however, in that many of these feasts often ended in drunkenness and people having sex indiscriminately. There was a lot at stake in Thyatira, since non-participation in these immoral idol-feasts could result in the loss of a way to make a living. I have to say that I myself as a pastor would have difficulty firmly telling people that they should take action that would probably result in a financial crisis for them. I don’t imagine it was any easier for the church leaders in Thyatira.

In addition to this pressure from the culture, there was also a problem within the Christian community. There was a well-known woman there who taught that is was OK for Christians to participate in idol worship and sexual immorality. Apparently, she even encouraged it. She claimed to be a “Prophetess,” to speak for God. Jesus, however, calls her “Jezebel.” I highly doubt that Jezebel was her actual name. It wasn’t a common name in that area in those days. Instead, I think Jesus is calling her “Jezebel” to show what he thinks of her. In the Old Testament “Jezebel” was the name of the wife of King Ahab of Israel. She was very instrumental in leading the kingdom of Israel away from God, and toward the worship of idols, and she was a thoroughly evil woman. So the name “Jezebel” for the prophetess of Thyatira is meant to reveal her true character, not her actual name. Her character is evil, and her teachings are leading God’s people away from Him, and into destruction. This “prophetess” does not speak for God at all.

I want to make something very clear here. The problem is not simply that a few Christians here and there are falling to temptation and sinning occasionally. These are people who are pursuing a lifestyle of ongoing sin, and teaching others to do the same.

How could this happen? How can a church be growing in faith, perseverance, service and love, accomplishing greater things for the kingdom of God, and yet allow such false teaching and immoral practice? Apparently they knew at some level that her teachings were false – why did they let her continue?

It appears that there were two groups of people within the Church at Thyatira. One group embraced the teaching (promoted by the self-styled “Prophetess”) that Christians could fully participate in idol worship and sexual immorality. They not only embraced the teaching, the but also the actual lifestyle. The second group apparently did not agree with these teachings, nor did they participate, but they tolerated the Christians who did such things, and also those who taught such things. They didn’t rebuke “Jezebel” or her followers.

Tolerance, of course is highly prized in our society today, and I think we have probably already heard the kinds of things that the Thyatirans might have said to persuade themselves not to do anything about “Jezebel.” Have you heard any of these before?

“Oh, I’m not judgmental. ‘Judge not that you be not judged.’”

“We’d better take the log out of our own eyes before we try to remove the splinter from hers.”

“Who’s to say that she isn’t a prophetess? I don’t have an exclusive connection to God.”

“If we say she’s wrong, and people can’t do that, then a lot of people might lose their jobs! We can’t be responsible for that!”

“If we say this is wrong, we might lose some members of the church who really like her and her teachings.”

“I think maybe she’s starting to come around a bit. Let’s just keep praying for her and hope she sees the light.”

Do these sound familiar? You see, the Christians at Thyatira knew that what she did was wrong, but they let her keep doing it. They were timid – they didn’t want to rock the boat. They didn’t want to cause trouble or sound judgmental.

Jesus, however, has no trouble sounding judgmental. Lest anyone wonder, he declares that this “Jezebel” had been given the opportunity to repent, and she spurned it. Therefore, she is going to punished, both only eternally, and also physically, right now, along with her followers. It is entirely possible, considering the nature of their sins, that the Lord would allow them to contract syphilis or some other STD, which in those days, before antibiotics could be painful and deadly. In any case the language suggests a connection between the “bed of adultery” and the “bed of sickness.”

In addition, he says “I will kill her children with pestilence.” I do not think this means her actual, physical children, if she had any. From the context, it is almost certain that when he says “her children,” Jesus means her followers. There will be severe judgment not only on “Jezebel” but also everyone who participates with her. The purpose for the judgment is to show all believers in Asia that while Jezebel is a false prophetess Jesus is the true son of God, and he deals with truth – whatever the outward appearance may be.

Again, let’s make this clear. This isn’t about people who are trying to follow Jesus, but occasionally fail, and fall into sin. This is about ongoing lifestyles of sin, and about endorsing such lifestyles.

Let’s bring into real life in the 21st century right now. As I mentioned last time, we seldom worship statues anymore. But when we center our lives around anything other than God himself, we are engaged in idolatry. If our deepest hopes, comforts or fears are found any place outside of the presence of God, we are idol-worshipers. In addition, no matter what our culture says, sexual immorality is a big deal to God. It is not an option for those who claim to be Christians. Now, I don’t mean that if you have ever sinned sexual you are going to hell. The forgiveness we have in Jesus is real, and powerful, and it overcomes all sins. But it is not an option to claim to be Christian while we continue in a long-term pattern of sinning without repentance – sexually, or otherwise. This isn’t me talking: it is unquestionably what the Bible teaches.

The church at Thyatira sounds haunting familiar to me. Many who call themselves Christians today are willing to serve others and show love to the world, and even to persevere in doing those things. But they are not willing to confront sin. They are not willing to sound judgmental, and in fact, they get angry at other Christians who do try to confront people who persistently live a sinful lifestyle. Our passage today makes it clear what Jesus thinks of Christians who tolerate sinful lifestyles in the church. It isn’t enough simply to “love and serve.” If people claim to follow Jesus, a persistently sinful lifestyle is not an option. Tolerating those who call themselves Christians while they live in unrepentant sin is also not an option. Good works and serving others is not enough if we tolerate sin in this way.

Now, when I say that Jesus does not tolerate these things, and that we should not either, I am not talking about any kind of violence, anger or oppression. We do not have permission from Jesus to hurt others. But we must not call “Christian” what Jesus calls sinful. Paul explains this very well in his letter to the Corinthians:

9I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. 11But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? 13But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves. (1Cor 5:9-13, HCSB)

Let’s also be clear about this. This isn’t my opinion. This is what the Lord Himself says to His church. Do not accept as a Christian someone who persistently sins without repentance. In our passage today, Jesus shows his anger at those who say otherwise.

Now, in the case of Thyatira, Jesus simply tells the Church to take a stand. He makes two promises to those who do so, who hold fast until He returns:

1.) Authority over the nations. I believe that this promise is given to drive home the main point. Are you afraid of being judgmental toward fellow Christians? Don’t you know that in the future you will judge even more? Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 6:2-3

2Or 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? 3Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! (1Cor 6:2-3, ESV2011)

By “saints” Paul simply  means “Christians.” Peter says something similar:

17For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household, and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God? (1Pet 4:17, HCSB)

This promise is a reminder that we do have the authority to call sin “sin” and to speak out against wrongdoing. It is not wrong to do so. If we faithfully do it now, he is saying, our authority will continue in greater measure after we are with him.

2.) Jesus also promises “The morning star.”

This is a bit surprising. However, Jesus Himself is called the “morning star” in Revelation 22:16. I think this is the promise that those who repent and persist in faith will receive the eternal glory and satisfaction of the full presence of Jesus Himself. In the New Heavens and New Earth, the presence of Jesus will be enough for all of our needs. He will fill us with eternal joy.

I think this is an important promise for people who stand to lose finances or relationships because of their faith in Jesus. I mentioned this last time, but it is a real possibility that Christians may need to make hard choices in order to continue to follow Jesus. We may need to stay out of certain professions that require us to teach others that immorality is good and normal. We may need to forgo sending children to universities that are actively undermining their faith. We may have to avoid financially lucrative opportunities that put us in morally compromising situations. When we have to do these things, Jesus promises the fullness of his own presence as compensation. He is all sufficient, and nothing we lose in this life compares to the joy and glory and grace of the Morning Star in our lives.

Revelation #6 The value of selective intolerance

Temple of Artemis

In a culture that was hostile to Christianity, the Ephesian church was intolerant of those who called themselves Christians, and yet indulged in sin and called it OK. They were intolerant of would-be celebrity leaders who taught bad doctrine. Jesus praised them for this sort of intolerance.

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Revelation #6.

Revelation 2:1-7. Part A.
In the future, I hope to finish each of the remaining six letters at the rate of one sermon per letter. However, there is some more introductory material that I think is important, so we’ll take the letter to the Ephesian church in two parts.
As I said before, that the number of seven churches were chosen to indicate that these are messages are relevant for all churches at all times; and the particular churches were chosen because their victories and struggles are examples for all believers. So I agree with the great Bible commentator, Mathew Henry, who said:

“What is said to one church concerns all the churches, in every place and age.”

So it is safe to read Revelation 2-3 just as we read Paul’s letters to other churches. They contain warnings, promises and encouragements. In fact, in the case of Revelation 2-3, there is a very structured format in the messages sent to the churches. First, each message emphasizes a particular revelation of Jesus – a certain aspect of his character that the church really needs to focus on (I call this part A). Next, comes an “I know…” from Jesus, as he reveals that he is actively watching over his people. He knows everything they are about, both good and bad. Usually, Jesus commends his people in this section, which I call part B. Part C is a rebuke, where Jesus points out a place where the church needs to repent and grow. Part D describes an action that the Lord wants the church to take in response to the message, and part E lays before God’s people a wonderful promise.
The church at Ephesus is the first one to receive a message. The Ephesian Christians had been in a culture war from day one. By this point in history, Ephesus maintained its status as a great city only because the Shrine to the Greek goddess Artemis was found there. People came from all over the Roman world to worship at the shrine, and naturally, many of the city’s residents made their living from the tourist trade associated with the goddess. Thus in the very beginning Christians had come into conflict with merchants who sold little statues of Artemis (Acts 19). One of the silversmiths who made the statues was even forthright enough to say to his fellow craftsmen,

“Men, you know that we’re earning a good income from this business, and you see and hear what this man Paul has done. He tells people that gods made by humans are not gods. There’s a danger that people will discredit our line of work, and there’s a danger that people will think that the temple of the great goddess Artemis is nothing. Then she whom all Asia and the rest of the world worship will be robbed of her glory. (Acts 19:25-27).”

So the Ephesian church was born into hardship, born into a culture that was immediately hostile toward it.

In “part A,” the special picture of Jesus is that he holds the seven stars in his right hand, and walks among the seven lampstands. What the Spirit is emphasizing is that Jesus Christ is personally present among his people, and he tenderly cares for each, and holds the future of each. This was especially important for the Christians in Ephesus to remember, as we will see.
In part B, Jesus praises them for several things. In the first place, their works, their labor, and their patient endurance (2:2). These are good and faithful Christians. The first word, “works,” indicates working energetically. The second, “labor” includes the idea of hard labor, or even pain. Patient endurance tells that the Ephesians are not sunny-day Christians. They have stuck with it, when it is easy and good, and also when it is hard, and long. Verse 3 fleshes this out even more: they have had to bear many hardships, and they have done so without growing weary. They have spiritual endurance, and grit.

One very helpful thing to do when you read the Bible is to look for examples you might follow. There is much that we could learn from the Ephesians, especially for modern American Christians.

It is common for people in this country to move from church to church, searching for the ones with that feel the most exciting, or which have the best programs, or most convenient schedule. There wasn’t a scent of that sort of behavior among the Ephesians. They stuck with each other, and with their faith, through thick and thin, through exciting times, boring times, hard times, painful times.
There is another wonderful thing about this Ephesian church, something else that Jesus praises: though they tolerated hardship and hard work and pain, they did not tolerate evil. They also tested those who claimed to be apostles (but were not) and exposed their lies.

As I look at the church-at-large in the Western world today, I do not see the sort of passion for truth, and intolerance-of-evil that the Ephesians Christians had. Remember, Jesus praises them for this. Instead, everywhere, I read articles by Christian leaders who seem willing to compromise truth in the name of tolerance, or “reaching out.” I want to be sure you get this. Jesus actually praised the Ephesians for being intolerant of evil. Today, the only evil our culture recognizes is what they call “intolerance.” That is certainly not the case in the New Testament.

Now, I do want to make sure we understand what kind of intolerance Jesus is talking about. He gives us two examples. First, the Ephesians did not tolerate those who falsely claimed spiritual authority over them (false apostles). They tested the false leaders, and found out the truth, and kicked them out of their church. They compared the words of the popular leaders and preachers with what they already knew of Jesus and God’s word, and they did not tolerate someone who claimed to be a Christian, or a good leader, and yet was not. It makes me sad today how our “Christian culture” has become so celebrity oriented. Many, many, people allow themselves to be led by Christian celebrities, and so often we accept what a Christian celebrity says without testing it. So often we are afraid of the crowd, and so we accept what these celebrities say, even when we suspect it isn’t quite right.

The second target of intolerance for the Ephesians was the Nicolaitans. They hated their practices (v 6). This group, and others like it, will crop up again in the next chapter or two, so it is worth spending a bit of time on them here. Early church leaders, writing roughly 100-150 years after Revelation, say that the Nicolaitans claimed to followers of Nicolaus, one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles in Acts chapter 6 (In other words, a “Christian celebrity.”) They claimed it was OK for Christians to participate in idol-worship, and also in sexual immorality, because Jesus had freed them from all sin. Tertullian (an early church leader) wrote that their practices were so obscene that he declined to describe them in detail. The bottom line is, they tried to use Christian theology to justify sinning.

This reminds me of someone I know personally. The man, let’s call him Andrew (not his real name) was once an alcoholic and a drug addict. He was miraculously healed by Christian minister – with no cravings, no withdrawals symptoms, he simply quit everything. A few years later, Andrew thought to himself, “I’ve been healed from addiction. Therefore, it should be OK for me to have a beer. After all, I’m no longer an addict.” Within a few months he was doing cocaine, and who knows what else, and had destroyed his family by his renewed addictions.

You see, Andrew was not healed so that he could indulge himself without consequence. He was healed so that he was no longer bound by his addiction, so that he could be free. But by indulging himself once more, he became bound once more. This is how it is with sin. We aren’t forgiven in order to allow us to sin without consequence – that is what the Nicolaitans taught. The rest of the apostles taught otherwise:
13For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. (Gal 5:13, HCSB)

1What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply? 2Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. (Rom 6:1-4, HCSB)

11So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires. 13And do not offer any parts of it to sin as weapons for unrighteousness. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God as weapons for righteousness. (Rom 6:11-13, HCSB)

The Nicolaitan heresy reminds me of certain people in our own time. Many, calling themselves Christians, believe that there is a vague, over-arching principle in the Bible called “love” (though they are careful not to define too closely what they mean by “love”). The Nicolaitans said that forgiveness means we can sin all we want. The modern day heretics say that love means that as long as we do it in “love,” nothing is a sin.
In fact, according to them, if we say that what someone else is doing is sinful, then we are not “acting in love,” therefore we ourselves are sinning. With this kind of false teaching, modern Nicolaitans undo much of what the Bible actually says.

In fact, scripture teaches us that love is expressed by following the commands of God:

3This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands. 4The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” yet doesn’t keep His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5But whoever keeps His word, truly in him the love of God is perfected. This is how we know we are in Him: 6The one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked. (1John 2:3-6, HCSB)

Another one, from John’s second letter:

6And this is love: that we walk according to His commands. (2John 1:6, HCSB)

In addition, according to the Bible, not all that is called “love” is good or Holy:

15Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. 16For everything that belongs to the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle — is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever. (1John 2:15-17, HCSB)

So not all “love” is good. The Love of God provides forgiveness of sins through Jesus, but it does not give us a license to continue to sin. Love does not eliminate any sin.

I think we have plenty to chew on for now.
Jesus praises the Ephesian believers for rejecting this Nicolaitan heresy. We are facing something very similar to the Nicolaitans. What will he say to us about how we handle the distortion of the doctrine of love?

He praises the Ephesians church for not tolerating Christian celebrities who teach bad doctrine. What will he say to us about our celebrity-oriented culture?

He praises the Ephesian church for endurance and grit through hardship, opposition and pain. What will he say to us about how we handle hardship, and about how well we stick with each other even when it is hard work?

Now, in a way this message is incomplete, since we are stopping in the middle of the letter. The end of the letter contains a promise from Jesus if we repent. No matter how badly we may have done up until this point, Jesus does offer forgiveness and newness of life, and the power of the Holy Spirit for us to live as he asks.
Let us take advantage of that right now.