Like all churches, Thyatira was home to a mixture of believers and false believers. Like Pergamum, the believers were guilty of tolerating the false believers and their corrupting influence in their midst. But unlike Pergamum, false believers and idolaters dominated the church at Thyatira. True Christians were a scant minority.
To those faithful few, the Lord writes, “I know your deeds, and your love and faith and service and perseverance, and that your deeds of late are greater than at first” (Revelation 2:19). Just as the Lord’s penetrating eyes saw all the sin in the church, He assures the believers in Thyatira that He sees their faithfulness, too. Specifically, He points to their “love and faith and service and perseverance.” There is no mention of the soundness of their doctrine—we don’t know how wise or theologically astute these believers were. It’s possible that these were still young Christians, not yet mature in their faith. But they were strong in the area that Ephesus was weak: They loved God and served each other out of that love. Christ also commends their faith and perseverance, and He notes that these godly traits were growing “greater than at first.”
The church at Thyatira was an immoral cesspool, but these precious few believers were remaining faithful. In a situation like that, there is no greater comfort than knowing God sees your deeds and approves.
The Ravages of Jezebel
With that brief word of commendation out of the way, the Lord launches a scathing rebuke for the church at Thyatira: “But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20).
Despite the undue emphasis the world has put on the word in recent years, nowhere in Scripture is the church called to be “tolerant.” In fact, you could make a case that God intends for the church to be known by its intolerance. He demands a church that won’t tolerate false teaching and immorality. He demands, as we saw last time, a church that won’t tolerate sin. Thyatira was failing in those respects. The Lord says, “You tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess.” The congregation at Thyatira had succumbed to some sort of first-century feminism and abdicated some level of influence in the church to a woman, contrary to the clear principle set forth by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” The Thyatiran “Jezebel” was an immoral, idolatrous woman, to boot. Christ notes that she “calls herself a prophetess,” which means she blasphemously claimed that her profane heresies were from God.
Scripture doesn’t tell us who this woman was. Christ refers to her as “Jezebel,” but that is undoubtedly not her real name. You don’t find a lot of mothers choosing the name Jezebel for their baby girls. The original Jezebel was an Old Testament character—the wife of king Ahab. She was so evil and destructive that Scripture points to their marriage as the pinnacle of Ahab’s wickedness: “Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him. It came about, as though it had been a trivial thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he married Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went to serve Baal and worshiped him” (1 Kings 16:30–31). Baal was a Canaanite god associated with rainstorms and fertility; the rituals of his worship included self-mutilation and perverse orgies. Israel had been guilty of worshiping Baal in the past, but under Jezebel and Ahab, it became an officially sanctioned religion. As a result, Jezebel’s name became synonymous with the worst evils of false religion, as well as the corruption of God’s people.
We need only consider the gruesome details surrounding her death to get a sense of how God’s wrath burned against this vile woman:
When Jehu came to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it, and she painted her eyes and adorned her head and looked out the window. As Jehu entered the gate, she said, “Is it well, Zimri, your master’s murderer?” Then he lifted up his face to the window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” And two or three officials looked down at him. He said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down, and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall and on the horses, and he trampled her under foot. When he came in, he ate and drank; and he said, “See now to this cursed woman and bury her, for she is a king’s daughter.” They went to bury her, but they found nothing more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. Therefore they returned and told him. And he said, “This is the word of the Lord, which He spoke by His servant Elijah the Tishbite, saying, ‘In the property of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel; and the corpse of Jezebel will be as dung on the face of the field in the property of Jezreel, so they cannot say, “This is Jezebel.”’” (2 Kings 9:30–37)
Like the Old Testament Jezebel, the prophetess in Thyatira was leading God’s people into idolatry: “She teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20). Through her blasphemous false teaching, this woman was leading slaves of Christ back toward the bondage of paganism. Scripture tells us how seriously God takes it when a false teacher leads one of His children into immorality and heresy:
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! (Matthew 18:6–7)
Scripture doesn’t tell us specifically what this Jezebel was teaching in the church at Thyatira—just the results of her heresy. Taking what we know about some of the false teaching that assaulted first-century believers, we can get a sense of how she lowered the spiritual defenses of the church and led the Thyatirans into such grave sin and error. The fact is those same lies still circulate to this day, with a similar corrupting effect.
It could be that the church at Thyatira succumbed to an early form of Gnostic heresy. The term Gnosticism comes from the Greek word for knowledge (gnōsis). It was a dualistic philosophy that plagued the early church. They taught that the physical universe was inherently evil while the spiritual world was good, and that salvation was simply about attaining a kind of esoteric spiritual knowledge. The result of this dualism was a total indifference to moral values and ethical behavior. Because the body and the spirit were completely distinct, sin committed in the body had no effect on the spirit. By arguing that what one did with the body didn’t matter to God, adherents gave license to all sorts of fleshly iniquity.
While Gnosticism has not survived as a defined movement, gnostic ideas have resurfaced and plagued the church across the centuries. The false notion that salvation is simply a function of mental assent still plagues the church. Gnostic teaching allowed for a radical disjunction between what people say they believe and how they live their lives. That same inconsistency is pandemic in the church today. Countless people in supposedly evangelical churches believe they are saved simply because they walked an aisle and prayed a prayer to “receive Christ.” They are assured of their salvation regardless of how (or whether) their supposed salvation manifests itself in their lives. Proponents of such easy-believism make the same fundamental error as the Gnostics: If you say you believe the right things, it doesn’t matter how you live. The result is a false assurance of salvation that tragically leads many people to hell.
Another closely related ancient lie that might have aided the Thyatiran Jezebel’s deception is known as antinomianism. That name comes from the Greek words for “against law” (anti nomos), and that’s a simple way to sum up their philosophy. Antinomians believed that God’s law did not apply to Christians—that His forgiveness was complete and that His grace covered any sins they had committed or would still commit in the future. They twisted the truth that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Galatians 5:18) to suggest that the law of God therefore has no relevance to Christians. With regard to the question of Romans 6:1—“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?”—their answer, in effect, was Yes. Sin magnifies God’s grace, so it’s nothing to be concerned about. This gross misconstruing of divine mercy gave them a callous view of righteousness and self-discipline, and led to lawless lives of open sin. Jude described and warned about those who propagated such error: “Ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).
While the name “antinomian” remains a pejorative in Christian circles, a similarly skewed view of God’s grace has been rising in popularity in recent years. Some pastors proudly flaunt their sinfulness before their congregations; others openly mock the pursuit of holiness and godliness as a legalistic denial of grace. And while the strong emphasis on God’s grace may sound good initially, this theology leads to a dangerous underestimation of sin and a lack of appreciation for its true offense to God. In many cases, it is little more than a façade used to cover an immoral life.
You can see how both lies would have played into the hands of the Thyatiran Jezebel. Virtually any excuse to overlook sin would have aided her campaign of corruption. Whatever the nature of her doctrinal lies, she succeeded in convincing much of the church that the extreme immorality of paganism was acceptable behavior for believers. They believed they could claim the name of Christ while still openly indulging in the sins of the flesh. In fact, Christ’s letter refers to the efforts of some in the church to “[know] the deep things of Satan, as they call them” (Revelation 2:24). Apparently this woman and her followers were not satisfied with garden-variety idolatry and paganism. They ventured deep into Satan’s domain to satisfy their immoral appetites. In their twisted logic, even demonic perversions and satanically licentious behavior were permissible.
In verse 21, the Lord says, “I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality.” There can be no mistake—this false prophetess knew the depths of her wicked deception. She knew that her teaching was an affront to God, a blasphemy of His name, and a spiritual poison to the church. God’s patience with her was now at an end, and judgment was coming.
(Adapted from Christ’s Call to Reform the Church.)