Christ takes the purity of His church seriously. He warned His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:1–2).
His letter to the church at Thyatira in Revelation 2 strikes a similar cautionary note, condemning those in that congregation for the corruption they had invited into their midst. Scripture doesn’t tell us specifically which false doctrines had infiltrated the church, but is clear that they were engaging in some of the pagan practices that dominated the culture around them. Describing the ringleader of their corruption, the Lord said, “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).
While churches today might not be incorporating pagan rituals into their worship services, there are plenty of congregations that have similarly made peace with the world, and are allowing ungodly influences to infiltrate and dominate. It’s the kind of soft syncretism that blurs the exclusivity of the gospel, and allows twenty-first century cultural norms to usurp Scripture’s clear teaching about sexual sin and God’s design for marriage.
Tragically, there are many churches like Thyatira today that have succumbed to corruption and need to heed the Lord’s warning that judgment is coming.
A Proclamation of Doom
Christ promises a swift and terrible response to the corruption of His church: “Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds” (Revelation 2:22–23).
Divine judgment was coming speedily for the Jezebel of Thyatira, and all “who commit adultery with her.” Throughout Scripture, “adultery” is frequently used as a reference to spiritual infidelity. The term is fitting, and often literally applicable, because acts of fornication were deemed religious rites in many varieties of pagan religion, ranging from the ancient Canaanites to first-century Greek and Roman cults. Corinth, for example, was a city filled with temples. But brothels were even more numerous than the temples, and prostitutes served as “priestesses” of the various cults. The fact that Christ calls this Thyatiran woman “Jezebel” indicates that she and her false teaching had fostered a wicked tolerance of immoral relationships within the church. She had apparently incited physical acts of adultery within the church, mimicking the paganism of that corrupt age. The idea that this woman was guilty of actual adultery is reinforced by Christ’s warning that He would “throw her on a bed.” (The words “of sickness” do not appear in the original Greek text; they were added by translators.) The sense is that she and all those who partook in her iniquity would be cast into hell together.
The Lord continues, “And I will kill her children with pestilence” (Revelation 2:23). Literally translated, He says, “I will kill her children with death.” This is most likely not a reference to any biological children she might have had. Rather, the Thyatiran Jezebel had wielded influence in the church long enough to have a second generation of followers who advocated her heresy. In order to purify His church, the Lord threatens to kill these disciples of Jezebel’s debauchery.
Christ’s words here ought to make a compromising, sin-tolerating pastor panic. For the sake of the purity of His church, He will kill those who bring a corrupting influence. He did it when Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1–11). He struck down some in the Corinthian church who abused the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28–30). First John 5:16 says there is “a sin leading to death”—a sin so serious the Lord takes the person’s life. If the purity of the church is under threat, the Lord will remove that threat from the face of the earth. He may not always do it when we expect—He often extends great patience, the way He did with this Thyatiran Jezebel. But that patience isn’t guaranteed. Again, we must not imagine that there is an “acceptable” amount of sin in the church. The Lord doesn’t tolerate any; we shouldn’t, either.
In His time, the Lord will move in decisive judgment against those corrupting His church—and not just for the sake of that individual church. Christ says He will pour out His wrath so that “all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds” (Revelation 2:23). Put simply, the Lord was going to make an example out of Thyatira.
I don’t understand how pastors and churches can be indifferent to sin when they see this unequivocal statement from the Head of the church: that He will put on a public display of His holy wrath if a church falls into corruption. He will make a spectacle of His judgment, such that other congregations see it and cringe. He will use the failure and the destruction of one church to purify others, and to display His holiness to His people. There is no excuse for tolerating sin or welcoming it as an evangelistic strategy. Doing so invites the wrath of heaven.
Christ’s words in verse 23 echo Jeremiah 17:10: “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.” This is another affirmation of His deity and authority. He reminds us that He is the omniscient Judge who sees everything with penetrating, perfect clarity.
But there is, finally, a note of encouragement in His words—not for the immoral idolaters corrupting His church, but for that minority who have remained faithful against the onslaughts of Satan and his false teachers. Just as He sees the deeds of the wicked, He also sees the faithfulness of the remnant. And He doesn’t close His letter without a final word of comfort to those who hold fast to the truth.
Comfort for the Uncorrupted
If you were a faithful believer in Thyatira, there was only one church in town. There was this church that was openly practicing idolatry, or nothing. That was your church.
Plenty of believers today feel similarly stuck in communities where there are no strong or faithful churches, where they can only search for the best of some bad options. To those faithful Christians holding on in weak and failing churches, the Lord has this to say:
But I say to you, the rest who are in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not known the deep things of Satan, as they call them—I place no other burden on you. Nevertheless what you have, hold fast until I come. He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father; and I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 2:24–29)
The Lord always knows His own. Amidst the vile corruption in Thyatira, within a church sprinting to hell, there were still some faithful believers. The Lord saw their deeds, too. There is no other burden on them; they just need to stay faithful. They were already bearing the burden of constant false teaching, the immense weight of grief from living faithfully alongside that horrifying spectacle. That was enough. But Christ tells them they need to “hold fast” to the truth, withstanding the corrupting influences all around them. They must continue to resist the solicitations of Satan and the wicked influence of his false teachers. There is no other church to run to. They have to hold up under the pressure of this consuming corruption and wait for the Lord’s purifying work to commence.
That should be a comfort to every faithful believer stuck in a sinful church. The Lord is not blind to your situation. He sees the corruption that surrounds you. He knows the burden you bear. He wants you to stay faithful, and He wants you to know He sees your faithfulness. You may be spiritually stranded, but you’re never alone.
Moreover, to His faithful overcomers (see 1 John 5:4–5), Christ promises, “I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father” (Revelation 2:26–27). The language here comes from the words of Psalm 2:7–9: “I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, You shall shatter them like earthenware.’”
This is a reference to Christ’s reign in His millennial kingdom. To those who faithfully overcome, who persevere to the end, Christ promises to share His holy authority with them. The Lord will rule over the rebellious nations with a rod of iron, but He will also shepherd His people. That’s the role He shares with His blessed overcomers in His kingdom.
There’s more: “And I will give him the morning star” (Revelation 2:28). In Revelation 22:16, John tells us that the morning star is none other than Christ Himself: “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” On this side of heaven, Christians have Christ in part. We have His Spirit indwelling us; we have His Word. This is a promise of our future relationship with Him, when we will know Christ fully, intimately, and thoroughly in the glory of His kingdom. Eagerly anticipating that blessed day, Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Overcomers will receive both the kingdom and the King.
Christ closes His letter to Thyatira with His repeated charge to the wider audience: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:29). The church needs to hear His words to Thyatira and tremble. We need to know that God will not be mocked, and He will not withhold His judgment indefinitely. He will fiercely punish those who tolerate and toy with sin, infecting His church with worldly corruption. But to those who withstand and remain faithful—to those who remain uncorrupted by the world—He promises the fullness of Christ as they reign with Him.
(Adapted from Christ’s Call to Reform the Church.)