Tolerance is a buzzword.
Over the past decade or more, tolerance has been lifted up
as an esteemed virtue – to some, the highest good of our humanity.
So much so, that to be labeled as “intolerant” is
one of the greatest insults one can receive.
To be sure, the mark of modern, enlightened, and civilized society
is “to live and let live”
– to accept and affirm everyone’s beliefs and behaviors.
And yet, strangely, in our so-called age of tolerance,
we find ourselves even more divided, more polarized than ever before.
Ironically, in the push for increased tolerance,
we’ve ended up becoming more intolerant of each other.
Maybe this is because our understanding of tolerance
isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Perhaps we need to rethink what tolerance actually means
and if tolerance ever has its limits
– if maybe there are some things we shouldn’t, we can’t tolerate.
Today, we return to the Book of Revelation, chapter 2.
We resume our hearing of Jesus’ letters to seven local congregations
residing in Asia Minor during the 1st century A.D.
We return to our practice of reading someone else’s mail
believing that Christ’s words of encouragement and correction,
caution and blessing in these letters were intended not just for
those churches but for the Body of Christ across all time and space.
The theme of today’s letter to a church in a place called Thyatira
is tolerance – specifically, when tolerance becomes intolerable.
Together, we are going to be reminded the idea of a tolerant society where believers and unbelievers are alike have “liberty of conscience” is a specifically biblical idea.
At the same time, we also will learn
while there is a good kind of tolerance, there is yet
a right, necessary, and even virtuous kind of intolerance as well.
And along the way, we are going to be surprised to discover
the first place we should be pointing the finger
when it comes to being intolerant is not outwards at the culture
but inwards at the church. (TEXT)
The longest of the seven letters in the Book of Revelation
is addressed to a community of Christians
residing in a place called Thyatira.
“To the angel of the church in Thyatira write:
These are the words of the Son of God…” – Revelation 2:18
Thyatira was an industrial city located 35 miles inland
from the Aegean Sea.
Situated at the intersection of several trade routes,
Thyatira was prosperous commercial center.
Insert Map of the Seven Churches of Revelation
(previously sent to you)
However, despite being the manufacturing and marketing hub
of the Roman province in Asia,
Thyatira was basically a blue-collar town.
It’s workforce consisted of large numbers of tradesmen and artisans
– bakers, cobblers, weavers, dyers, tanners, tailors, metal workers,
potters, and brick makers.
Each of one of these professions had a guild associated with them
– or in our modern language – a union.
These guilds, these unions would have been all over the place
in an industrial city like Thyatira.
These were the associations through which you networked,
hired workers, landed jobs, and grew your business, your trade.
The significance and influence of these trade guilds is something
that will become important as we progress though this letter.
As for the church in Thyatira – we don’t know much
about the origins and history of this congregation.
There is some speculation that this church
was planted by a woman named Lydia,
who is briefly mentioned in the book of Acts.
“13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.” – Acts 16:13-15
A wealthy tradeswoman
– particularly of expensive purple-dyed fabrics,
Lydia originally hailed from the city of Thyatira,
and is the first documented convert to Christianity in Europe.
Having been led to follow Jesus
thanks to the work of the apostle Paul,
some then theorize that perhaps Lydia
was the founder of the church in Thyatira.
Biblically, all that we know for sure, however, about this community
of Christians is from how Jesus describes them in this letter.
His initial description of the church in Thyatira is extraordinary.
“I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance…” – Revelation 2:19
Jesus highly commends them, saying, “I know your deeds,
your love and faith, your service and perseverance…”
That’s quite a list of affirmations.
It tells us the church in Thyatira was an outward facing community
– a gathering of followers of Jesus who were less focused
on themselves and more attentive towards bearing witness to
God’s goodness and grace through their engagement with their city.
The strength of the church in Thyatira was visible
in the practicality, the tangibility, and the endurance of their love.
Out of their faith, these Christians loved each other like Christ
and consistently demonstrated the love of Christ to the world
through their compassionate service towards their neighbors.
Even more than this, Jesus affirms them for making progress –
for continuing to grow and mature in His love as He declares
, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.”
– Revelation 2:19
“ you are now doing more than you did at first.”
Brothers and sisters, let us strive to hear Christ say this of us
– that we are getting better in reflecting and doing good –
in pointing to and representing who Jesus is –
through words and deeds that radiate with love, faith,
service and patient endurance.
The church in Thyatira has a lot going for it
– but this community is not without its problems.
Jesus turns and addresses a critical area of needed attention
as He shares, “Nevertheless, I have this against you:
You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet.
By her teaching she misleads my servants…” – Revelation 2:20
The mention of Jezebel here by Jesus
is probably not the name of an actual person.
Like the reference to Balaam last week
in the letter to the church in Pergamum, Jesus is again
using a well-known figure from the story of ancient Israel
to signify something about the church’s current situation.
Jezebel, as recorded in the book of 1 Kings in the OT,
was a Phoenician princess who became
the evil, foreign wife of King Ahab.
“29 In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned in Samaria over Israel twenty-two years. 30 Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him..,
…but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. 32 He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria.”
– 1 Kings 16:29 – 32
As the de facto queen of Israel, Jezebel persuaded King Ahab
to tolerate her worship of the Canaanite fertility god name Baal – alongside the worship of the Lord God, YHWH.
She fostered the spread of the worship of Baal
by having an altar built to Baal in Samaria
– the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel
and by underwriting the importation and support
of hundreds of prophets devoted to worship of her false god.
Jezebel promoted the idea of combining
the worship of YHWH with the worship of Baal.
She forcibly rejected any notion that to do so was idolatry
– violently executing any prophets of the Lord
who spoke out against her.
Relating this back to the church at Thyatira, there was a teacher, perhaps even a movement within the Christian community,
that, in the spirit of Jezebel, was advocating devotion to other gods alongside one’s commitment to following Christ.
The particular point of tension for Christians in Thyatira had to do with all of those numerous trade guilds I mentioned earlier.
Each of these guilds or unions had a patron deity.
In fact, the patron god of many of these trade guilds was Apollo,
the god of the sun, who as a purported offspring of Zeus,
also interestingly was known as the Son of God.
Part of participation in membership in the guild meant
one had to pay homage to these patron deities like Apollo.
There would be meat that was sacrificed to these gods – these idols
– to ensure the blessing, the strengthening of the guild by the gods.
Being a part of the guild meant offering your tribute to these gods – paying your union dues as it were and participating in the meetings – the social activities – the required worship services.
Not to participate was to be marginalized, to be ostracized.
If you weren’t a team player, then you wouldn’t get the contracts,
you couldn’t secure any labor, which meant you wouldn’t be able to find any work and thus you couldn’t survive economically.
Before this crisis of faith and conscience for Christians,
someone like Jezebel was teaching there was no conflict of interest
for followers of Jesus who did what they had to do in order
to be part of the trade guild and hold down a job.
“By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.”
– Revelation 2:20
While we are not sure of the specific argument being made,
based on similar struggles throughout the early church,
the teaching of this “Jezebel” may have been along the lines of
what you do in terms of the flesh – your body – doesn’t really matter.
We’re all spirits living in a material world.
Being spiritual is what counts.
What we do physically can be divorced from
our connection to Christ spiritually.
If you’re strong enough in your faith in Jesus,
then there is no harm and more potential power in exploring
and broadening one’s experience with rival beliefs and practices.
Such logic, such teaching, such practice remains
a continual deception and snare to this day within the Church.
Regardless of whatever the particular false teaching was,
the one who was advancing it did so on two fronts –
first, as a prophet – as a spokesperson for the Lord,
“You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet.”
– Revelation 2:20
and second, claiming to possess deep & secret insight not available to just anyone.
But on all counts, Jesus firmly and strongly rebukes
what is being advocated by this “Jezebel.”
Christ allows no quarter for compromising one’s faith in Him
– casting the giving of any allegiance to gods of these guilds
as being nothing less than adultery.
Jesus also reframes the self-proclaimed prophetic teaching of
this “Jezebel” not as previously unknown, positive spiritual insights
but rather as “Satan’s so-called deep secrets.”
“…to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets,” – Revelation 2:24
Christ goes on to speak of how whoever is advancing
this false teaching as well as those who are buying into it
– have been given both the opportunity and the time to repent
“I have given her time to repent of her immorality,
but she is unwilling.” – Revelation 2:21
– to rethink, to stop and reflect, to turn around from doing what is wrong, and to return and recenter themselves in Him – in the Gospel.
But those responsible for both leading and practicing idolatry
refuse to be corrected and remain unwilling to be changed.
To which Jesus ominously warns those who live apart from
– in rejection and denial of the grace of God – will reap what they sow.
“I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. 23 I will strike her children dead.” – Revelation 2:22 – 23
And all that we ultimately can sow apart from
abiding in Christ is death.
Apart from Jesus,
we can do nothing in this life that lasts, that endures.
Apart from Jesus, there is nothing for us in the end but the grave.
At first glance, the struggles of the church of Thyatira appear identical to the church in Pergamum that we looked at last week.
The Christians in Thyatira, like those in Pergamum, seem to be
falling victim to the seduction and lies of idolatry
rather than standing firm in the truth of the Gospel.
While clearly there is some of this taking place,
if we read Jesus’ letter to the church in Thyatira more carefully,
we suddenly notice the problem there is different
and frankly, more troubling.
Something that stands out is the fact that
clearly, not everyone in the church is following this false teaching.
This issue here for the community as a whole is not so much
one of practicing idolatry as it is, per Jesus, tolerating it.
“You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet.”
– Revelation 2:20
This is what Jesus rebukes the church at Thyatira for
– being tolerant of false teaching and idolatry within the congregation.
If we remember all the way back to Jesus’ first letter
to the church in Ephesus, the Ephesians struggled to love others
like Christ loves us but was commended for their testing
and rooting out false teaching within the church.
“I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” – Revelation 2:2
For the church in Thyatira, it’s the exact opposite situation.
The Christians in Thyatira had the love of Jesus on full display
but their love had become divorced from truth
as they were failing to address and correct false teaching
and bad behavior within their community.
In short, they were inappropriately tolerant.
Tolerance, while often championed these days,
is a challenging trait to get a proper handle on.
Allow me to demonstrate what I mean.
Were I to ask you to raise your hand if you are a tolerant individual,
my assumption would be that your hand would go up.
If I were to raise this question in a large gathering of people,
I’d be willing to guess nearly every hand in the room would go up.
When it comes to tolerance, we tend to rate ourselves
by comparison to others – attaching labels other than “tolerant”
to those who are different from us.
Case in point.
Most people who think of themselves as “tolerant” view those
who are more tolerant as “softer,” “more liberal” or compromising.
Whereas, most people tend to view those who are less tolerant
as “hard-liners,” “more conservative” or “nit-picking.”
But this sort of definition of tolerance is highly suspect.
Being entirely subjective, it is practically meaningless.
The word “tolerance” actually means to
“show a willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior
that one does not necessarily agree with.”
Based on this definition,
we ought to realize tolerance can be a good thing.
We should acknowledge that our Creator – God – is tolerant.
After all, we’re still here.
Humanity hasn’t completely dropped dead because the Lord
is tolerant in the face of our rebellion and rejection of Him.
Our Father relentlessly, tolerantly continues to pursue us
– to heal us – to reconcile us to Himself in and through Christ
– even while we are yet still sinners –
living in opposition to His character, His will, and His purposes.
Therefore, we likewise are called to be tolerant of each other.
It is good, right, and true for us not to mistreat others
– to deny compassion or mercy
– because they think differently than we think,
because they believe differently than we believe,
because they act differently than we act.
And yet, tolerance does have its limits.
On a personal level, what we tolerate differs depending upon
our relationships and the situations we find ourselves in.
There are behaviors and practices we tolerate
in our relationships with our family and friends
that we would never tolerate from other people.
Out in public, we tolerate things that people think, say, and do,
that we would not tolerate in our homes.
But again, tolerance is about more than personal preference.
As a parent, if I see a child playing in the middle of a busy street
and then say and do nothing – telling myself, “Who am I to judge?”
that’s not a good example of being tolerant;
it’s one of being irresponsible.
Pushing this wider, there are some actions, behaviors
that we collectively do not tolerate even in society.
Can any of us imagine saying to serial-killer,
“Well, you just think and behave differently than I do”?
It’s absurd because murder is not something we normally tolerate.
We all intuitively understand this.
It’s almost as if the wrongness of this has been hardwired
into our humanity from somewhere or from someone beyond us
– a Creator, a moral Lawgiver, the Lord.
The point is tolerance has its limitations.
There can be such a thing as being too tolerant.
Any definition of tolerance that means
every individual’s beliefs, values, lifestyle,
and perception of truth claims are equally valid is nonsense.
Tolerance, in these terms, is in fact, indifferent to truth.
Tolerance of this sort makes morality impossible.
This so-called tolerance appears to make everything permissible
– but always ends up having some limits
– except those limits become, not surprisingly, defined by
the convictions and values of those in power.
The God we worship is more than tolerant.
The God who comes down to us in Jesus Christ does so
because He purposes not simply to patiently tolerate
but to mercifully and graciously confront and heal our brokenness
– to reveal to us that we are not all that we were meant to be
while simultaneously showing us and empowering us to become
all that we still can be
– can become through abiding and following Him.
But as this same God through Jesus Christ also carefully spells out
in this letter, we must not mistake grace with tolerance.
We are shown the truth of the Gospel, we are extended faith,
we are offered the gift of the Word and the Spirit,
to be set free from the error and evil of sin,
but if we refuse to receive all this grace,
if we remain unwilling to repent, if we persist in claiming to
belong to Jesus while we continue to bow down before other gods,
despite what we tell ourselves when Jesus returns,
it won’t be “live and let live,” it will be “live and let die.”
Now before we take all this as some kind of justification for
launching into a referendum on how corrupt this world this,
how despicable things are “out there,” and then launch
a self-righteous campaign against all the non-Christians,
we need to stop and notice something else in this letter
– something that might surprise us.
The focus of Jesus’ attention in this letter
– His bone of contention with the church in Thyatira is NOT
their toleration of people “out there;”
it is of people “in here” – those in the church
– those who claim to be a part of the Body of Christ
but who are speaking and acting otherwise.
Jesus’ critique of the Thyatiran church is that
they are allowing certain teachings, beliefs, and behaviors
to creep into the faith that had no business being there.
In other words, the point of this letter is not so much about
what and how we tolerate what is going on in the world
– but rather what and how we tolerate what is happening in the church – in the community of people that professes to follow Jesus,
to represent Christ.
This is about a lack of accountability and discipline
within the Body of Christ.
Let us think of it this way.
If our next-door neighbor who does not profess to believe
or follow Jesus is a selfish, bigoted, and unkind person,
we are not called to sit in judgment on that person.
We have no reason or grounds to expect or to hold
our neighbor accountable to the way of Christ.
It would be inappropriate as well as bizarre
if we attempted to correct or discipline our neighbor
based on our beliefs and practices as Christians.
Tolerance outside of the faith is respecting the reality that
we as Christians can and should cherish and maintain
our belief and allegiance to Jesus,
we have no right and have been given no authority from God
to belligerently or violently enforce our views and practices on others.
Instead, by the grace of God, with wisdom and modesty, we are to walk by faith – trusting the truth of Christ, while it must be shared – both proves and defends itself – particularly as rightly reflect Jesus
in not only what we say, but in how we live with each other.
As Christians, we are called to
patiently and lovingly tolerate our neighbor
– not perceiving any license in their bad attitudes and actions
to return their behavior in kind – but instead seeking
to treat them compassionately – forgiving and serving them
despite how they conduct themselves.
On the other hand, if our neighbor claims to be a Christian,
if our neighbor is a member of the Church, then we cannot
and should not tolerate any attitudes or behaviors by them
that run counter to the truth of the Gospel.
Instead, we are to care enough to confront a brother or sister
in the faith when they are acting, teaching, or leading wrongly.
To be clear, as Christians, we don’t have to agree
with each other on everything.
What we are talking about here is not being intolerant towards
any deviation from one’s own theological views and methodology.
Part of being the Church – especially maturing together
as the Body of Christ – is learning to accept diversity.
The Holy Spirit doesn’t bring us together to all look or think alike.
Part of following Jesus is being able to co-exist at times
with disagreements and ambiguities, and carefully discerning
when there is room for divergence in opinion and practices.
The unity of the Church is essential and that means
sticking together as the Body of Christ is appreciating
when and how we can agree to disagree
– and do so without being disagreeable.
But on the other hand, we can’t refrain from all criticism
– from holding each other accountable
– and sometimes enacting discipline.
Biblically, the key is we need to speak up, to stand up,
and to take action when an individual or persons within the church
– or if a local branch of the Church is promoting a false Gospel, is misrepresenting the character of Christ
– is wrongfully, hurtfully, and dangerously not following
the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus.
The Bible encourages us to speak the truth
– but to always do so in love.
Jesus outlines for us in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18
a specific progression of steps for holding each other accountable
in a healthy manner.
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” – Matthew 18:15-17
Other biblical writers like Paul, Peter, and James,
amplify the guidance that Christ gives to us.
We can be intolerant without being or becoming intolerable.
Healthy accountability in the Body of Christ is
not about policing; it is about supporting and encouraging each other.
Healthy confrontation and critique in the Body of Christ should be informed and honest and yet also compassionate and respectful.
Healthy discipline and correction in the Body of Christ seeks
not to punish or destroy but to afford repentance and reconciliation.
Healthy boundaries or separation – a parting of ways
in the Body of Christ should reflect past gratitude and future blessing
– and not judgment or condemnation.
It’s somewhat ironic and rather tragic that these days
the Church is known more for being intolerant of the world
– of speaking out against cultural degradation
and passing judgment on the sins of outsiders
rather than for tending to its own house
– and dealing with the thorns and the weeds in its own backyard – rather than acknowledging, confessing, and repenting of
the sins of its own past.
We, as Christians, are willing to intolerantly point fingers at the world,
but when it comes to holding each other,
holding ourselves accountable to the Gospel we proclaim
and the One we profess to follow named Jesus,
we are willing to maintain a conspiracy of silence.
Out of misplaced loyalty, charismatic deception,
or just plain fear of change – losing what we have,
we are reluctant to lovingly and healthily confront
words, attitudes, behaviors, and actions that are not of the Lord
– that are giving Jesus a bad name,
that are grievously wounding others,
that are driving people away from Christ rather than towards Him.
We are more tolerant of knowing but claiming not to know,
of sensing something is wrong but not ever bothering to ask,
of seeing what is not right but choosing not to say that it is wrong.
We are more tolerant of keeping our faith private
– of not making ourselves accountable to anyone
– of sinning in secret rather than opening up and daring to ask for help.
We are more tolerant of gossipping about the thorn
in my brother or sister’s side is avoiding
even as we ignore the giant log coming out of our own eye.
relationship, we tolerate unrepentant sin in the church.Before we point the finger, we need to look at the log in our own eye.
And yet, as Jesus poignantly describes in this letter,
his eyes are like blazing fire.
“These are the words of the Son of God,
whose eyes are like blazing fire…” – Revelation 2:18
Christ sees us as we truly are, not as we pretend to be.
The soul-penetrating gaze of Jesus penetrates
all that we are willing to tolerate within ourselves,
to tolerate within His Body – not just to leave us exposed – but in order to enable us to stop hiding, to stop running, to stop trying to convince ourselves and live a lie – but instead to find freedom.
Christ who alone searches and knows all hearts and minds
“I am he who searches hearts and minds…” – Revelation 2:23
looks at us, comes to us, speaks to us, works within us
– to cleanse and to heal us.
Through this letter to the church in Thyatira,
Jesus isn’t just calling them, calling us out.
Jesus is inviting us, yet again,
to be informed in order to be transformed – by Him.
Christ speaks of giving authority to those who keep following Him.
“To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations— that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father.” – Revelation 2:26 – 27
Jesus’ promise here is a direct reference to Psalm 2,
which describes how the Messianic king received from the Lord
the authority to bring all nations under his rule.
Christ, the Son of God, promises us the authority He first received from the Father – the authority to be changed, the authority to change the world as we reflect and share the transformation Jesus is accomplishing in our lives.
Christ also promises to give us the morning star.
“I will also give that one the morning star.” – Revelation 2:28
The morning star is the star that appears at the darkest time of night – at that moment when it looks as if the dawn will never come.
The appearance of the morning star immediately transforms
the seemingly all-encompassing darkness into the darkest that is ever going to get as the promise of dawn now begins to loom on the horizon.
Jesus is offering us the ultimate sign of hope – His presence as the Light in the darkness – the Light the darkness cannot ever overcome.
Jesus is assuring us that He is with us every step of the way and so we don’t have to tolerate the darkness in our lives anymore.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to be
both wonderfully tolerant and boldly intolerant all at once.
Our tolerance for the darkness of this world and those who are lost and trapped within it – is to remain high – for we have the light of the morning star – Christ going before us.
As the same time, authorized with the power of grace – the presence of the Holy Spirit – and being made a part of the Body of Christ – we must be intolerant of anything that wrongly, that falsely, that willfully, and persistently misrepresents who Jesus is, what the Kingdom of God is like, and how the Gospel calls us to live.
To practice, to settle for anything less is to forsake,
is to lose all that we have been given by Jesus.