The Message to the Church in Thyatira: Holiness and Embodiment

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Revelation 2:18-29

So as most of you probably know, we’ve been doing a sermon series this summer on the letters to seven different churches in the book of Revelation, and this week we come to the fourth letter in the series, which is addressed to the church in Thyatira.

And even though we’ve been in this series for several weeks, this is my first time to preach from the book of Revelation, and I have to admit, it’s been challenging for me to study it. Yes, because the letters are convicting about God’s truth and God’s judgment, but also I think because, the way that Jesus is portrayed in Revelation doesn’t exactly sound like the same Jesus who preached the sermon on the Mount. Do you notice that at all? Why would that be? Why the seemingly harsher and more condemning tone?

Well, the historical situation matters a lot for our understanding, and we’ll get there, but it’s true, Revelation as a book is probably the most intense account in all of Scripture of the conflict between good and evil. It comes to a head. So the language reflects that intensity, that urgency, that polarity.

Another thing to keep in mind though is that while we’re calling these different passages “letters,” they probably weren’t individual letters. Really all of them together are like one single letter with seven different messages to seven different groups, but also one message to all the groups, and what is that one message — before we look at the specific message?

Well, despite very difficult circumstances, and even with the warning that Jesus will “give to each of us as our works deserve,” the book of Revelation is actually above all about hope. It’s about hope, because it unveils the power of God to be victorious over not just sin, but even death and great suffering. The big picture of Revelation, is intended to bring comfort. And it’s about hope, because in the end, God is going to do what? As it says in Rev. 21, “make all things new,” and “wipe away all our tears.”

It’s as if Jesus is also saying, don’t you remember that I died and suffered much in the way that some of you are? I’ve been there. I’ve walked that path. And what happened to me? I was resurrected! So trust me. Don’t let up now. I give you the confidence and the endurance to face the very worst that world can bring your way. Not for avoiding it, but for conquering it. This is good news!

But yes, at the same time, the book of Revelation is also issuing a sober reminder that the Christian life is going to be hard. Now, it’s not going to be hard because everyone’s out to get you. We’re not getting persecuted in this country. 70% of Americans still identify as Christians even if they don’t act like it, and in fact, if anything, historically, Christians in the West have been guilty of actually persecuting non-Christians. But the Christian life is hard because regardless or when or where we live, the dominant forces of this world – culturally, economically, politically, spiritually, are by nature, opposed to the way of Christ.

And so if our primary motivation is to avoid the difficulties of this opposition, we’re in for a stern correction from Jesus. Yes, it’s a message of hope, but for us, at least those of us who are relatively safe, privileged, and prosperous, this letter is less of a comfort in the face of persecution and affliction and much more so a warning and wake-up call in the face of too much comfort! Because when the church loses its holiness, its humility, and its willingness to sacrifice instead of compromise itself, it also loses its moral authority. And this, I think, is the real heart of the challenge that the church is facing in North America right now.

And it is in this respect that this letter speaks to us despite the situational differences. So what was going on? The church in Thyatira sound like it’s in a decent place. It’s moving forward and growing in spiritual maturity. In verse 19, Jesus even acknowledges their “love and faith and service and patient endurance.” These are strong affirmations! So these fruits of the Spirit were being manifested. Jesus affirms and encourages them for this, but there is this accusation as well, of tolerating or accommodating a prophetess, Jezebel, who is promoting fornication and eating food sacrificed to idols. They loved, had faith, and served with endurance, but they lacked holiness.

You might recognize the name Jezebel from 1-2 Kings. She was a Canaanite queen who enticed Israel to worship of foreign gods. So the name likely serves as a metaphor for similar behavior to that of the Jezebel from Kings. Which means it may not be the name of the actual woman who was influencing the church in Thyatira at the time. And when Jesus says, “I will strike her children dead,” it doesn’t mean her literal children but rather those who follow her.

Now, the name Jezebel was associated with sexual immorality and the common practice in the Roman Empire among pagans of cultic prostitution and ritual orgies. So at one level, the issue is indeed about actual unholy sexual acts that some people in the congregation were either indifferent, or maybe some were even condoning or participating in these ceremonies. Which sounds pretty shameful, and it was, but this wasn’t happening in some dark alley or bad neighborhood somewhere. It was high society practice! The powerbrokers of the day were steeped in it.

So on the other hand, and at broader level, Jezebel represents something else — she names those of us, who wanted to keep our faith while also keeping our standing in society. So yes, there is always the temptation and struggle with inappropriate sexual gratification, which must be seriously dealt with. But Jesus’ words here are equally concerned with social and economic desires — not only sexual desires, but the desire for material or financial security, by being connected to the right people, as well as the desire to be noticed or seen as important. Because holiness in the Christian life isn’t just about sex. It’s about all of life. There’s often a connection between sexual immorality and exploitation in the Bible.

As for food being sacrificed to idols…. This problem surfaces elsewhere in the New Testament. There is of course the obvious connection to pagan gods, so the act itself is dishonoring to God at least by association. And it also helped with climbing the social latter.

But to eat food sacrificed to idols, or to tacitly approve of it, was not simply to worship the wrong god or even to merely commit unholy acts. It was to make a different confession of truth and basically bless the Roman way of life: a way of life that consisted in conquering other people into submission to the emperor, and oppressing and persecuting all who resist. If you eat the food that’s being sacrificed to their gods, that’s what you’re saying, essentially. That Rome’s gods are true gods. That Rome’s ways are the right ways, that their way is the holy way. Whether it’s Caesar himself that’s being worshipped or Apollos — who was the Greek sun god, and archaeologists have found ruins of shrines dedicated to Apollos where we believe the city of Thyatira was located (modern day Turkey).

So this wasn’t just about momentary, isolated or individual stumbling into physical cravings, which we can all relate to some extent, whether in terms of food or sex, but a more sustained lifestyle commitment that some Christians were making, and an accommodation to falsehood about who God is, what is true, and how we’re called to live. That John records this particular rebuke by Jesus suggests that some Christians in Thyatira were not only tolerating it, but actively justifying their refusal to speak against it. In other words, there was some very sophisticated rationalization and self-deception going on. I think you’ll recognize some of this:

  1. First, as we’ve already been talking about, they’re concerned about their own survival and prosperity, so they say it’s not a big deal to eat this food or associate closely with those who fornicate.
  2. Secondly though, and this one will sound very familiar, there’s the responsibility for effective evangelism. Shouldn’t we adjust (TJ mentioned this last week) ourselves to the cultural around us in order to have a more compelling witness to the Gospel? In the world but not of the world? We’ve all heard that one… See here’s the thing about this argument. Obviously, Jesus wants us to evangelize and engage society. Our faith is always engaged. But for Jesus, faithfulness – holiness – always comes before effectiveness – at least insofar as the world tends to measure effectiveness.
  3. Thirdly, a further argument put forth in favor of tolerating Jezebel would have been a philosophy that was popular at the time based on Plato’s thinking, but distorting it, by saying that the spirit and the body are separated in an extreme way. There were different varieties, but the term that’s generically applied to this sort of thought is “gnosticism.” So, Christians who were giving into this logic would say things like, what does it matter what I do with my body? I don’t believe in these false gods. I believe in Christ. I can eat whatever I want. The only thing that really matters is my soul or my spirit. And what I do in my body doesn’t affect my spirit, so I’m good! We’re off the hook! Holiness isn’t important.

Maybe the most widespread, disembodied practice of both of the Roman Empire and the US today is to accumulate wealth and to consume without regard for its effect on others.” I’ll mention a three examples before we wrap up.

  1. If you are a business owner, a manager or an investor, and the only thing you’re asking about in your work is how to maximize profit within the limits of the law, you’re not asking enough questions. That’s disembodied business that falsely separates personal life from professional life.
  2. Concerning fornication: It’s embodied and engaged by how we look at other people, men and women – ok. What the largest illegal commercial industry in the world right now? The sex trade, human trafficking. And we can say oh that’s awful. But what am I supposed to do about it? Well, for one thing, men, and I’m not taking to only men, but this does tend to be a male issues — if you objectify women with your eyes, you’re complicit in the culture and in the economy that markets and profits from sex. That’s what Jesus says — if there’s lust in your heart! The inside and outside can’t be separated. They’re always integrated.
  3. When it comes to food, food sacrificed to idols, what are the idols that our food is sacrificed to today? We want to be convenient, we want to be affordable, and we want it taste sweet, so we have a diabetes epidemic. We’re a fast food nation. And we don’t care where our food comes from or whether it’s in season — as long as we can get it cheap, and we get it whenever we want. We’re disembodied from it. Most of our food (and clothing!) comes to us from people who aren’t getting paid enough to harvest or make it, or it comes from companies that put stuff in it to make it their process more efficient and more profitable at the expense of our health. Those are our gods! Cheap, tasty, convenient goods. On a related note, think about our relationship to trash and waste. We throw stuff away and don’t care where it goes or how it affects the environment or other people. And we pay for things to get shipped from thousands of miles away at tremendous but hidden energy costs (because it’s in bulk!) – creating a demand that fuels some of the world’s costliest conflicts and tends to lead to violence.

That’s the thing about these prohibitions. They’re not arbitrary. God doesn’t forbid certain behavior because it’s a rule. It’s forbidden because it’s not good. Because it’s harmful. When children are little, they have to be told not to do things before they fully understand why. And God has to treat us like children sometimes. But you all are not children anymore.

A growing Christian is one who learns to understand God’s character and the reasons for God’s instructions. Because they’re good for us, and they’re good for others. As the Psalmist says, oh how I love your Law! I meditate on it day and night! (Psalm 119:97)

And y’all know that doing what we naturally want isn’t ultimately fulfilling to begin with. It doesn’t work! It may feel like freedom at first. There’s a line from song sung by Jeff Bridges in the movie “Crazy Heart”: “Funny how falling feels like flying, oh for a little while.” It’s amazing how often God speaks through country music! But we know this: sins of the flesh, so to speak, feel good in the moment, but leave us emptier and worse off than we were before. They enslave us.

The great paradox of the Christian life is that real freedom comes full bondage and submission to Christ’s service. God’s commandments are in fact not burdensome, but bring true life. Jesus exposes us with a piercing gaze, with eyes like a flame of fire (v. 18), and says, “Come into the light! It will be painful, but it’s the only way to be healed, to be free, and to be holy.

And it’s the only way for the church to be a holy people for the sake of others. Disembodied people don’t care how their behavior affects others. The church is called to be a blessing to others — on all that it does! — that’s what holiness is.

So the question is, how do we participate in a holy and embodied way, in a society that has very different commitments? Well, the first thing is that we can’t do it by ourselves. We need relationships of accountability. It’s hard enough to live a holy and embodied life when we do have relationships of accountability. Without these relationship, it’s impossible.

So with that, let’s just be quiet for a moment, and leave room for the God’s Spirit to speak. and then I’ll pray for us.

God we do know you are holy, and we are not, but you empower us together by your Spirit, to be made whole again, to be healed, and to stand firm in the face of so much opposition to your Way. So we need you to show us this way again and again: a way that is holy, embodied, and that transforms our desires and consumerism into blessing and into good news for those around us. May we follow you on this Way. Give us the eyes to see it and ears to hear your voice. Amen.