We are very “just the facts” sort of people, we want facts, and figures, and statements that give us intellectual content. That’s how we have been taught to approach religion. We have worship, sure, that part that is supposed to get to our heart. But then we get to the head stuff.
The head stuff is separated from the heart stuff. We’re not supposed to think about worship and we are supposed to think about the content of Scripture. How can we bullet point each passage? How can we make it clear the right things to believe and the wrong things to believe.
Revelation isn’t like that. It’s not about what to believe, sorting it out like a puzzle. It’s meant to provoke an emotional response that affects our commitments and actions. Are we with God or are we against God?
Do you know Modern Art? It’s infuriating because it’s not about anything, not portraying anything, but that was the point. It wasn’t about making a copy of something in the real world, it was intended to bypass that intellectual part of ourselves, to hit our emotions.
That’s what movies do? Right? If you boil a movie down to its essence, just the bare plot, you often are left with a much weaker impression.
Or, if you spend so much time on details, you likewise can lose the point, trying to figure out the symbolism of everything. Then arguments develop as people disagree, and people who aren’t interested in such detailed examination move on.
That’s why most of us don’t like movie critics. There’s symbolism in movies and it helps to know some details, but if we get caught up in the details we lose the sense of the emotion.
CS Lewis once noted a similar thing about love. What is love? Well, it’s a complex chemical interaction in our brain that evokes a sensory response when around particular people or things. We can get into the scientific or philosophical nature of love. Go on for hours. But who would stay for that? No, love is an experience that in the experience defies analysis.
I suggest that’s how we should approach Revelation. There weren’t movies or television shows in these centuries. What they were was story tellers and they were masters of the craft. We have letters and we have histories, which are useful, but the goal of apocalyptic literature was something different, it was using the context of the time to evoke an emotional response, and in that response get us to go beyond mere intellectual analysis, which often leaves us agreeing but not really changing.
Revelation is intended to lead us towards transformation, to take hold of our mind, but also our heart and soul, to get a holistic response from us that actually leads us to become more in tune with what God is doing and what God will do. It’s like what we see with Nathan and King David: 2 Samuel 12:1-6
We’re meant to get the message but get the message with an emotional response that is driven by the imagery and allusions, the references to other parts of Scripture and contextual connections the readers would know.
So, our goal should be to get to know the allusions and the context, but not get so caught up in the details we lose the message. We should be emotional about this, God is trying to stir up some kind of passion, a passion that would lead the audience to turn from their ways and turn towards God.
READ PASSAGE: Revelation 2:18-29
“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze:
The core issue in Revelation, like with Genesis, is who is in charge? Now in Genesis we had images of Creation, as nature was the way people saw who was in charge.>
Here, the nations and empires had created cults, the gods were expressed through statues, the guilds in this city were themselves centers of both craft and idolatry. Caesar was often worshiped in other cities, but here we have Apollo, who was often represented on coins and statues. Thyatira was known for its metal working artisans who were initially supported for their ability to make weapons and armor, then broadened their appeal.
Christ is depicted as being in charge, and using the imagery that put Christ in the place of Apollo, that reflected elements of metal working—furnaces and products, images those in the city would see this in both an emotional and contextual way. Jesus, the real God, is in charge of all the materials, he is the one who has the ability to judge and condemn.
“I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first.
They’re on the right track. They seem to have the right priorities for the most part. Love, faith, patient endurance (which suggests hope). Faith, hope and love. 1 COR 13:13. These are the things that matter, the things that will last forever. And they’re putting it into practice with service. They’re getting a lot right. And they’re getting better.
But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.
I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication.
1 Kings 16:29-31
Jezebel was famous for leading astray because of religious syncretism. Religious justification for the wrong direction and wrong identity. Who is in charge? Who decides what is right and what is wrong? Syncretism mixes the messages, saying God is in charge of some things, other gods are in charge of other things, and we’re able to decide who is in charge and what we get to do.
That’s the core issue in Genesis too. Remember the temptation, the serpent told Eve that God was trying to keep something from them, that if she ate the fruit, Adam and Eve would have complete knowledge, complete insight, they could do what they wanted, they didn’t need a relationship with God, and in fact God was keeping them from their fullness.
That continues to be a religious argument. It’s not justifying based on giving into our worst selves, its appealing to our pride, to our sense of supposed religious maturity.
We think we can get away with more because we’re better. And we end up following people who lead us astray, who mimic spiritual maturity but in fact are false prophets.
But what about eating food sacrificed to idols?
1 Corinthians 10:14-23
Not all things are permissible
In Thyatira, we learn about religious justification for going astray. A prophetess was teaching the people that, apparently, God didn’t mind their behaviors.
Missing the mark can involve going too short or too far.
Too much devotion can lead us astray. If we’re devoted to wrong gods, wrong prophets, wrong ministers. We can put our stock in someone’s seeming spiritual or earthly authority and be led far away from who God is calling us to be in every area of our life.
Too little respect for the limits God has set, saying that one part of our life can be left out of this religious stuff.
Putting stock in the wrong person, letting our identity be shaped by prophets instead of by the Spirit.
What’s the sin here in Thyatira? Well, the audience knew, no doubt, who and what John was talking about, but we don’t. Maybe sexual immorality—and there certainly was a lot of that in both the culture and the religions of the day. We also, however, have echoes of Old Testament prophets. When the people of Israel worshiped false gods they weren’t just choosing a different way to worship, they were committing adultery with them, they were having an affair.
That’s the imagery here too. The Christians were being led into behaviors and practices that were adulterous. They were excusing it based on some kind of prophetic ideal.
This means that we can become fornicators with anything that leads us away from finding our identity in Christ. Life matters, every part of life matters, that’s what John is saying here, there’s no getting away from Christ, there’s no compartments in which life and religion are separate.
For some, it means sexual activity, excusing immorality because the culture does it, it’s not a big deal, it’s just the body. For others, there are other ways of fornication, and we continue to hear false prophets leading good Christians astray. Money, food, power, relationships, things that are good in their place but can easily dominate our attention and lead us away from seeing Christ as lord. The trouble with idolatry is it puts up a false lord for us to worship.
Like with our society, work was tied very closely to identity for the Thyatrians. What we do is who we are?
We can find our identity and excuses in work, or relationships, or money, or cars, or education, or music, or so many other things. Which isn’t to say those are bad but they become bad when we make them lords of our life.
But Christ demands that all parts of our lives are put under his lordship.
We’re to find our meaning and identity in and through Christ, and when we do that this lordship is involved in all parts of our life.
Our bodies matter and what we do with them. Our time matters and what we do with it. Our actions matter and what we do with them. What we eat, drink, value. These things matter and we can’t excuse our actions saying they don’t affect our faith. They do! Even if we don’t want to admit it, they do.
Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead.
This teaching seems to suggest it was appealing to people’s religious pride. That there were deeper teachings that the “enlightened” people knew and so they justified their behavior from a false sense of spiritual maturity. We see this a lot even today. People indulge their passions for wealth, or sex, or power, or whatever and justify it by saying its part of God’s plan, a result of some faith.
But John argues that this is missing the point and leading people not only into error but real adultery with these things. Adultery. We’re having an affair with wealth, power, sin. And we’re betraying God.
And God is letting it happen for a while, and seeing who betrays him. There is still a chance for repentance, so there’s hope, hope for all of us, but the time is coming in which God is going to assert his power. That Son of God with bronze boots and eyes blazing fire is watching.
And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.
God is in charge. God cares not only about our thoughts, what we believe, but also our actions and motives and everything about us. We make religion into intellectual consent, we can get lost. God makes the lordship of Christ about everything, like in Genesis, so too here. Adam and Eve had an opportunity and they had a temptation. Were they going to find paradise with God, or were they going to give into the deceit and try to indulge what they wanted, thinking they could determine for themselves right and wrong. They ate the fruit. This prophetess in Thyatira was eating the fruit. Others in the church were eating the fruit.
Do we eat the fruit? That is the challenge for us even still.
But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call ‘the deep things of Satan,’ to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden; only hold fast to what you have until I come.
The warning here is pretty clear. The people who have stayed out of this problem, need to keep doing what they are doing. Hold on, keep at it, John is saying. The temptation is to make the issue a crusade or to over-compensate.
Church history is filled with this, someone doing something wrong, so everyone focusing their attention on it, and forgetting to do what they were called to do. Or someone doing something wrong, so everyone reacts by making their own behavior more severe.
The holiness movement had this response, over-compensating in so many cases and losing the emphasis that Wesley put on a holistic participation in this world. The worry, for instance, about how early Liberals were both rejecting the resurrection and emphasizing social works, caused people to reject social works and service thinking that it was some kind of package.
We tend to see movements or leaders as packages, either entirely right in every case or entirely wrong.
So, a prophetess has something good to say, and folks follow her wholesale even into the fornication. Then, people might see this error and dismiss everything, even the good. But that’s wrong too. We need to see through the lens of Christ and Spirit, what is good and bad, fruitful and destructive, not package people as entirely right or wrong.
The issue of “no other burden” comes up in Acts 15:23-29.
To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end,
I will give authority over the nations;
to rule them with an iron rod,
as when clay pots are shattered—
even as I also received authority from my Father.
Clay pots are shattered when they are not made right or they have been polluted. Christ here shows who is in charge of determining this. Christ is in charge, and those who hold onto his identity, his calling, are going to be saved, and not only saved, they are going to be the ones who are given authority to know true right and wrong as well, through God, not apart like Adam and Eve, Ahab and Jezebel, and us today.
To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
The one who conquer the trials and temptations on earth will be given heaven. Phil 3:12-4:1
It matters what we do. We are called to live our whole lives in light of Christ’s lordship, not look for secret knowledge, or excuse our behavior or influences as not mattering.
There are those who will tempt us through our weaknesses, showing what the world offers.
There are others that will use our own religious devotion, leading us astray by making us feel like we’re part of the in-crowd, not limited, and able to use our freedom for sin.
Christ is Lord of all. Every part of our life. He is calling us to live lives of love, faith, hope, expressed in our practices, not giving into being swayed by people who are tempting us away from who we are called to be in Christ. Some of those people tempt us through the world, some tempt us through spiritual sounding words and encouragement.
We are called to be conquerors with Christ, holding on to who he calls us to be in every part of our life, patiently enduring the trials and temptations, not veering to the right or to the left. In the power of the Spirit, we can indeed find this way expressed in our lives. Let us not listen to false spirits, false gods, false prophets, or anyone that tries to steer us away from God. Let us hold firm to the fullness of truth in heart and mind and soul. In this is the way of peace and true victory.
I was invited to preach at the PazNaz Saturday evening service last evening. These were my sermon notes. I write things out first because I think better through writing, but then I use these notes more as cues, not reading it through just giving me a framework along the way.