Sunday 25 September 2011

Hold on to what you have (Revelation 2:18-29)

A small church

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.
Revelation 2:18-19

Thyatira was the smallest city out of the seven churches addressed in the book of Revelation. Compared to Pergamum (which we looked at last week), Thyatira was a tiny place. In fact, Thyatira was a military outpost used to defend Pergamum which was much bigger numerically and more important economically.

And yet, the longest letter in the book of Revelation is written to the city of Thyatira. Out of all the other churches, Jesus has more to say to the Christians in this tiny city. He says, “I know your deeds”. “I know everything that’s been happening in your church. Not the big one down the street. Yours.”

This was a small but growing church. “You are now doing more than you did at first,” Jesus says (verse 19). It wasn’t growing in numbers, but in love, faith, service and perseverance. I wonder if Jesus would say that of us? “Chinese Church: you are smaller than all the other churches. Most people in Cambridge don’t even know you exist. But I do.” We have not grown bigger in fourteen years. But the question is: Are we more loving? Are we more faithful to Jesus after fourteen years?

Thyatira was. It had grown in love and faithfulness. Jesus says to them, “Don’t think I haven’t noticed”. But then he goes on to say to this small church, “You guys have a big problem.”

A big problem

Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.
Revelation 2:20

The problem is “that woman.” Sounds harsh. Everything else is OK - very good, in fact - except for that one person, that woman, called Jezebel. Who is she?

Queen Jezebel is famously recorded in the Old Testament as the wife of Ahab, king of Israel. In 1 Kings 16 says this:

Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.
1 Kings 16:30-31

Ahab was the King but Jezebel was the real power behind the throne. She influenced her husband to institute nation-wide worship of the foreign god Baal. She ordered people to hunt down and kill every one of God’s prophets that they could find. When someone refused to sell the king a piece of land, she killed him and just took the property from him. Jezebel was a blood-thirsty, deceptive, mass-murderer and she ruled Israel.

But that’s not why she is condemned here by Jesus.

You see, last week we looked at the prophet Balaam who also caused that people of God to sin. But Jesus does not point to Balaam and say, “That man”. And yet look at verse 20. “You tolerate that woman, Jezebel.” Why does Jesus say, “That woman”? Two reasons:

Firstly, unlike the situation last week with Balaam and the teaching of the Nicolaitans, Jesus is singling out an individual, not just an influence. This was a real person. This woman was single-handedly responsible for the problems in this church and the judgement that was going to fall on this church.

Now it is unlikely that her name was Jezebel. That would be like having the name “Voldemort”. Parents don’t usually give their babies names like “Voldemort” or “Hitler”. What is happening here is Jesus comparing this woman to Jezebel in the Old Testament, and saying, “This is how serious the situation is.”

Why was it so serious? Balaam never tried to be one of the people of God. But the modern-day Jezebel was a member of the church in Thyatira. She was doing damage from the inside. She calls herself a prophetess - meaning, she has taken up a position teaching God’s word. She is seductive. She is deceptive. She is influential.

So, the first reason why Jesus says, “that woman, Jezebel” is because he is talking about a specific individual in this church, who is single-handedly responsible for corrupting the church from the inside.

But the second reason is this: You have empowered this woman to cause this destruction. “You tolerate that woman.” Now the Greek word “gunaika” can be translated “woman”, but it can also mean “wife”. Some manuscripts have the additional word, “sou” meaning “your”, which has caused translators to suggest that verse 20 read as “You tolerate your wife, Jezebel”.

Jesus is saying, “She is like Jezebel because you are acting like Ahab. You have given her the authority and control over the people of God.” How? Verse 20 says, “By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” Meaning: the way in which she is exercising her influence is by her teaching. Meaning: When you allow someone to teach in the church - whether it is here on a Sunday like this, or even in a smaller group like Rock Fellowship - you are giving him or her authority. What is the criteria for allowing someone to preach the bible?

Notice that this woman Jezebel was probably a very good teacher. She calls herself a prophetess - She would stand up and say, “This is what God’s word says.” Verse 24 tells us, she even taught the “deep things” about God; meaning the people who heard her teach went, “Wow, I never knew that before! That’s deep!”

The bible says in 2 Timothy 2:20 - this is the apostle Paul writing, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Teaching is equated with authority in the church. Paul does not allow women to take up this position of authority. That is why he writes, just a few verses later about overseers, pastors and elders, who must be men and who must be men able to teach.

Authority in submission

Now I have had very godly women, who are submissive to scripture, who love Jesus, earnestly ask me - not to stir up trouble, but out of a sincere desire to know God’s will, they say - “Calvin, what if there is a woman in the church who is able to teach? What if God has given her insight and ability and this gift of teaching?”

I would say, “Praise God for that woman and her gift. But God’s word tells us clearly to appoint men to lead the church and to teach the bible - not because men are more able than women; not because they are smarter than women - but because the leadership or men and the submission of women displays the headship of Christ and the submission of the church.”

The key principle is this: The authority to lead the people of God comes from submission to the word of God.

Now this is not to say that the moment we let a woman preach on Sunday, she’s going to turn into a Jezebel! That’s not what I’m saying at all - please don’t get me wrong! Jezebel was teaching idolatry and leading people away from God through her teaching. Jesus does condemn her personally, but he also condemns those who her allowed her to continue in her “ministry”. And the reason why it was so hard for them to put a stop to this teacher - not just this teaching - but this individual; a teacher in the church, was precisely because they invested authority in this person’s authority and not the word of God.

My appeal to you girls here in the Chinese Church is this: Many of you are here because you are studying for you PhDs. Many of you are articulate and smart and gifted. And let’s face it, the guys can be a mess. You look at them and think, “When are these men going to get their act together?” The bible says clearly from the event of the fall, that a key sin of Adam’s was irresponsiblity. We, men, are prone to laziness, ungratefulness and anger - even when it comes to leadership in the church; even when it comes to leadership in the family. We men, need to recognise that sin.

But women - the bible says of you - the fall caused women to want to rule over men. To compete. To take over. You girls, need to realise, that urge and desire will be there. It is a sin that will want to justify the action of “cleaning up the mess left by the guys” or “getting the job done properly”. If God has gifted you with ability, use that ability to God’s glory in submission to Christ. In your homes, that will be mean submission to your husband. In the church, that will mean submission to the elders and leaders of the church.

For men, we need to lead in submission and in love. Beware of hypocrisy. Or rather I should say, we should repent of our hypocrisy. We are given the privilege and responsibility of leading others in areas where often we have failed in our own lives. I will just highlight one area: prayer. We are not a church that prays well because we are not men who pray often.

Don’t get me wrong: In the midst of our failures, our sin and hypocrisy, the bible’s solution is not, “Try harder”. Rather, what the bible calls for is repentance: Acknowledgement of our sinfulness and trusting in God’s forgiveness.

Time to repent

I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.
Revelation 2:21

I find this truly amazing. Jesus gives this woman time to repent but she is unwilling. She is stubborn. “No, I will not!”

Not only her, but also the rest of the church:

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.
Revelation 2:22

It is hard to miss the overtones of sexual misconduct in these verses. Verse 20: She misleads - literally, seduces - my servants into sexual immorality. The word is porneia - which is a broad term which covers any and every kind of sexual sin. It is the root word translated “immorality” in the next verse 21. And in verse 22, those who follow her are accused of “adultery” which means unfaithfulness to a spouse.

And yet, it is important to see that these mean much more than just sinning sexually with your bodies. It is unfaithfulness to Jesus. When Jesus sees us worshipping him on Sundays, but then going to the temple on Mondays, offering joss-sticks at the temple, or bowing down to deities and idols during Mooncake festivals - We think it is no big deal, but it is serious, friends. In God’s eyes, it is as serious as cheating on your own husband or wife.

I don’t use this illustration lightly. I have had people tell me of friends whose husbands slept with other women, and men whose wives have left them and their children. They tell me how hard it is to forgive someone who has sinner against them.

Jesus offers this forgiveness. He gives time to Jezebel. He says to the church, “Repent.” He is a husband who is willing to forgive an unfaithful spouse. That is the love of God, don’t miss that, friends. It is costly forgiveness.

But Jesus also warns those of us who will do repent. Who, like Jezebel, are unwilling to repent.

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.
Revelation 2:22

Here Jesus turns from talking to Thyatira, to talking to us here at CCCC. “Then all the churches will know,” Jesus says. I don’t think this situation of a Jezebel teaching immorality to Christians has happened here. Not yet. Jesus is saying, “Make sure it doesn’t happen.” Don’t allow something as serious as this to ever happen here at CCCC. Because it can. Because if it does, Jesus will know - he searches our hearts and minds - and Jesus will repay each of us according to our actions.

But if it does - God forbid - yet if it does, Jesus says to those who are faithful to his word, “Hold on. I’m coming for you.”

Hold on

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); Only hold on to what you have until I come.
Revelation 2:24-25

The cross-reference for what Jesus means here is Acts 15:28. This is another letter written by the apostles in Jerusalem to encourage non-Jewish; Gentile believers who had come to put their trust in Jesus Christ. The reason for this letter was false teaching. The gospel had spread to non-Jews, but false teachers were placing extra requirements, or “burdens” on these new Christians, that they needed to be more Jewish in order to be true Christians. To assure the new believers that they were true Christians, the leaders in Jerusalem wrote and sent a letter through Paul and Silas saying:

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.
Acts 15:29

Here in Revelation says, “I will not impose any other burden on you”, referring to Jezebel’s teaching on “sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (verse 20). It is a message of assurance: What you have is the full gospel. You don’t need to extras - whether it is circumcision, or dressing up on Sundays, or even these “deep things”. Just hold on to the gospel - the essential truth of Jesus and his death on the cross as the only means of forgiveness and reconciliation to God.

Now the way in which Jesus encourages these faithful Christians is quite surprising. It’s like a friend who suddenly calls you up and says, “I’m in trouble. My car has broken down.” or “A tragedy has happened.” or “I’m lost and I don’t know where I am.” And you reply, “Hold on. I’m coming to get you.”

Jesus says to those who are still faithful to him. “Hold on. I’m on my way.”

Notice, this tragic situation is not caused by persecution from outside the church. It is false teaching inside the church. Moreover, it has become so difficult and perhaps even, irreversible, that the only solution is for Jesus himself to come and intervene. All because the church “tolerated” the woman, Jezebel. If you look over the page to the beginning of chapter 2, Jesus says to the Ephesian church, “I know you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” (Revelation 2:2) That’s what should have happened in Thyatira. I hope that is what is happening right now - I hope that you are testing my words. Are they true. Is this what the bible is saying?

Holding on to the gospel means testing everything against the gospel and rejecting anything contrary to the gospel.

The author to the Hebrews writes:

We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.
Hebrews 3:14

Authority over the nations

To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations -  ‘He will rule them with an iron sceptre; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’ - just as I have received authority from my Father.
Revelation 2:26-27

Finally we come to Jesus’ promise to those who overcome. It is the promise of authority. This is significant again because the church had handed over its authority to the false teacher Jezebel. But here Jesus reminds us that his authority comes from God the Father and that our authority comes from the Son of God.

In other words this mediated authority. Mediated just means that this authority comes from somewhere else. It comes from God. It comes through Jesus. It is rooted in God’s word. Which is why Psalm 2 is quoted.

“He will rule them with an iron sceptre. He will dash them to pieces like pottery.” Psalm 2 is a messianic psalm or a coronation psalm, that is, it is talking about the king. When the bible calls Jesus, the Son of God, it is calling him God’s chosen king.

Now the strange thing is this: Here is Jesus applying this Psalm on Christians - “To him who overcomes and does my will to the end... he will rule”. It is essentially saying that Jesus will share his authority - his rule over the nations - with Christians. Many of us hear that and go, “I didn’t sign up for that. That’s a bit heavy.” And if you are feeling a bit uncomfortable with the idea that you will be ruling with Christ or even exercising judgement under the authority of Christ, let me just say to you - That’s a good thing. Often times our judgements are selfish, motivated by pride, untempered by grace and driven by anger.

And yet Jesus has been telling us all throughout this passage that there will be judgement; that he will bring judgement; and that his judgements are fair. He sees into our heart. He repays according to our deeds. So when Jesus says to the Christians in Thyatira, “Hold on. I’m coming,” he is saying to them that he is returning soon to bring salvation and judgement.

But now Jesus adds one more dimension to his judgement. He will judge through the church. The word for “rule” in verse 26 is the Greek word “poimanei”, meaning, “to shepherd”; it is the word “pastor”. Pastor simply means “shepherd”.

It means that at times, leading and pastoring a church involves exercising God’s judgement in accordance with the bible. The church in Thyatira should have known this. They they should not have tolerated someone like Jezebel. They should called for repentance. They should have warned her of the consequences and given her time to turn back to God.

The morning star

I will also give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Revelation 2:28-29

The morning star here refers to the sun, or to be exact the rising sun. Jesus who has been addressing this church in the small city of Thyatira, saying to them, “I know your works; I see your into your hearts,” now says there will come a day when everyone will see. Your faith, love and perseverance will be as evident to all, as obvious as the rising sun.

This is God’s word. Someone asked me yesterday, “How do I know if God is really speaking to me?” It was a sincere question about finding out God’s will; about hearing God’s voice. And yet, here is Jesus saying that the Spirit is speaking to all the churches. God has spoken his final and full revelation through Jesus Christ. If you are reading this: This is God’s word.

The real question is: Are you listening?

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

Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds;
Help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time
That will echo down through eternity.
And by grace we'll stand on Your promises,
And by faith we'll walk as You walk with us.
Speak, O Lord, till Your church is built
And the earth is filled with Your glory.
(“Speak, O Lord”, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend)

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