No New Heresies (REVELATION–THYATIRA: THE SIN OF TOLERANCE) by Nancy Leigh DeMoss

In our current climate, one of the things we hear a lot about is the issue of tolerance. We’re all supposed to be tolerant. We’re supposed to tolerate people who disagree with us and people who have different practices than we do and people who have different backgrounds. But did you know that tolerance could be a sin? If that’s true, when is it a sin to be tolerant?

I want us to pick up in Revelation chapter 2, today, verse 18, with the letter to the church in Thyatira. God actually addresses with that church this issue of tolerance. I think it’s going to speak a lot to our generation as well.

Verse 18, “To the angel of the church in Thyatira.” The angel of the church, as we said early in this series, we’re not sure exactly what that means. It could refer to the spiritual leaders of the church. It could mean a messenger who took these letters to the churches. It could actually be an angel who had some sort of oversight over this church. But in some way that angel was a minister or messenger to the church.

To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: “The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your works, your love and faith, and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first” (verses 18-19).

Now as we get further into this session, we’re going to see that Jesus is going to confront this church over some very major issues, some really significant issues. He has some sobering words for this church. But it’s interesting to me, and I think enlightening, that He begins not with the confrontation but with a commendation.

He begins with a word of praise and affirmation. There are some things in this church that were going well. There were some things that were pleasing to the Lord. And rather than just passing over those and getting right to the thing that He had against them, He recognizes and verbalizes the things that are pleasing to Him.

That was convicting to me as I meditated on this passage because we have a ministry, and I give leadership in that ministry. There are times when there needs to be correction made. There are things that aren’t done correctly or that need to be fixed or changed. Not just moral issues or spiritual issues, but sometimes just things that weren’t done the way that they should have been done. In relationships within the body of Christ, sometimes we have to confront. Sometimes we have to rebuke.

But Jesus begins with praise. Let me say to those of you who are mothers, particular application here. Am I right that it’s so much easier when you’re day in and day out with these little ones, and you’re having to say no a lot, and you’re having to correct a lot, isn’t it easier to jump on the negative and start with that? Just take a lesson here that Christ saw the strengths of these churches, and He started out by pointing those out.

So Jesus says, “I know your works.” Then He talks about the heart behind their works and the activity going on in that church. He lists four things. First He talks about “your love and faith.” Faith is a word that could also be translated faithfulness. You have been faithful. Faithfulness is the fruit of genuine faith. When you have genuine faith in Christ, you will persevere in obedience to Him. You will have fidelity and constancy in your relationship with Christ.

That love and faith produced service and patient endurance. Love produces service and faith produces patient endurance. So Jesus talks about their service, which flows out of their love, their love for Christ, their love for others.

Service. That’s the word from which we get our English word deacon, “one who serves,” “one who ministers.” That word speaks of . . . one dictionary says it this way: “compassionate love toward the needy within the Christian community.” They were reaching out to each other. They were doing acts of mercy toward each other.

They were taking care of each other in a day when especially for many of them, their livelihood was being threatened if they couldn’t belong to these trade guilds that were so famous in Thyatira. They were ministering to each other, serving each other.They were tenderhearted and kind toward each other and toward others outside the church.

Then their patient endurance. They were persevering in their witness. They were bearing up under pressure. Remember, we said the context here was the Roman Empire in an era of intense persecution. There’s no record of Roman persecution taking place in Thyatira. It’s not referenced in this letter, but we know it was taking place throughout the Roman Empire and that there were difficult circumstances in Thyatira that could have made people just give up. It could have made them grow weary in well-doing. But they didn’t do that. They persevered in the midst of difficult circumstances.

He says your latter words exceed the first. In other words, “You’re growing.” So Jesus says to this church words similar to those that Paul spoke to the church in Thessalonica, 2 Thessalonians 1, where he said, “Your faith is growing abundantly and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing” (verse 3). “You’re not just standing still. You’re not backsliding. You are moving forward. You’re progressing. You’re growing.”

By the way, could that be said of you? That your faith is growing? Your love is increasing? Are you maturing in your faith? Are you increasing in your love? Or are you just kind of coasting spiritually? Or worse, are you backsliding? Could it be said that your faith and your love were greater ten years ago than they are today?

Well, this is an impressive picture that is painted of the church in Thyatira, so far. You could say that there’s a garden of Christian graces growing in this church. I mean: love, faith, service, patient endurance and you’re maturing, you’re progressing, you’re increasing in these things. What a beautiful garden.

But as we move on in the letter, we see that there was a poisonous weed being allowed to grow in this garden. There was, if I could change the metaphor, there was a cancer growing in an otherwise healthy body. Because you see as you read this letter there were two things that were missing in this church: sound doctrine and holy living.

There was a lack of discernment doctrinally, biblically that led to a tolerance of sin. We see that in the next verse, verse 20.

But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.

He says, “I have this against you that you are tolerant.” Now not all tolerance is sin, but some tolerance is sin. It depends what you’re tolerating. It’s okay to tolerate vegetables. It’s okay to tolerate people who come from different backgrounds than yourself. That’s a good thing. But there’s some things that Jesus says Christians cannot tolerate. This church was tolerating one of those things.

You tolerate, He says, that woman Jezebel. The word tolerate there means “to let alone,” “to let be,” “to permit,” “to allow, not to hinder.” It’s basically saying live and let live. There are certain people, teachings, and behaviors, Jesus says, that are not to be tolerated. Now that sounds unloving. It’s definitely not politically correct, but it is crucial for us to understand as followers of Jesus Christ in the 21st century.

By the way, this is a contrast to the church in Ephesus. The church in Ephesus did not tolerate false teachers. They dealt with them. They dealt with those who called themselves apostles and were not. They didn’t allow false teaching. But what were they weak on? They were weak on love. They were strong on truth, weak on love.

Thyatira had love, but they tolerated false teaching. They were weak on truth. We need both. We need both. We must have truth, and we must have love. And that’s why Jesus speaks to these two different kinds of churches. As you look around today, you can see that churches tend to be stronger on love or stronger on truth. You don’t find a lot of churches today that are really strong on both. And Jesus is saying, “You’ve got to have both.”

Now He says, “You tolerate that woman Jezebel.” Jezebel was probably not her real name. Who would name their kid Jezebel? It was probably a symbolic name. Her behavior, her influence in the church was like that of Jezebel, who was the most wicked woman in the Old Testament. First Kings tells us that Jezebel was the daughter of the King of Sidon, and she was the wife of King Ahab, the most wicked king in Israel (see chapter 16). She was arguably the most wicked woman of the Old Testament.

  • She was a strong woman, domineering, controlling.
  • She was a woman who got what she wanted.
  • She was self-willed.
  • She had a forceful personality.
  • She was ruthless.
  • She destroyed those who challenged her or got in her way, including trying to take down the prophet Elijah. She ended up tangled with him on an issue.

But this woman brought her own foreign gods into Israel and promoted Baal worship in Israel. The worship of Baal involved many immoral practices. She attempted to combine the worship of Jehovah in Israel with the worship of Baal. There’s a name for that. It’s call syncretism. It’s trying to merge together contradictory beliefs. That’s what she did by trying to say you can worship Jehovah but you can also worship Baal. Jezebel defiled Israel. Her name became a byword for apostasy.

The New Testament Jezebel held a respected position in the church. She was enormously influential. She had a platform. She had a strong personality. The woman in this church whose real name we don’t know, most likely, but she was like this Old Testament Jezebel. She was determined to stand her ground. Even when confronted by Christ, she refused to repent.

The Scripture says that this New Testament Jezebel calls herself a prophetess. Now we won’t go into this, but there’s evidence in Scripture of women prophetesses who were godly women prophetesses. There are a number of them listed: Miriam, Deborah, Philip’s daughters, Ana, others. So there’s definitely a place for women to exercise this prophetic gift—whatever that is, and that’s a topic for another session.

But Jezebel was not a true prophet. She was a false prophet. You see the pride of her heart that caused her to set herself up as a prophetess. I just think it’s interesting. It doesn’t say Jezebel is a prophetess. It says she calls herself a prophetess. She’s a self-proclaimed prophetess. She took that role upon herself. She certainly was not recognized by God as a prophetess.

As such, she claimed divine inspiration and authority. She claimed to be speaking the truth. She claimed to be speaking the word of God. Now understand, this is not a like cult leader out there in the world. This is a woman in a church that is praised by Jesus for having love and faith and service and patient endurance. She’s a woman in the church. She’s respected. She’s influential. She’s a leader. People follow her and admire her and respect her. But it says she is “teaching and seducing my servants.” The New American Standard says there, “She leads my bondservants astray.”

  • She’s causing people to stray.
  • She’s leading them away from the truth.
  • She’s leading them into error.
  • She’s deceiving them, and they don’t even realize it. They don’t realize that her teaching is not true.

Now that must mean that there was a lot in her teaching that was very close to the truth. Because if it had been clearly out-of-line teaching, the church probably would not have allowed her to be in the church. They wouldn’t have allowed her to persist. But it was subtle heresy, subtle error, subtle deviation from the truth that became serious deviation. “She leads my servants astray.”

Matthew 18 talks to us about the seriousness of leading God’s little ones into sin (see verse 6). It’s one thing to believe and practice false doctrine. That’s serious enough. But when you believe and practice things that then lead others into sin, God says that is a very, very serious thing, and it warrants the wrath and the judgment of God.

That’s why James says, “Don’t let many of you be teachers, because there’s a stricter judgment” (see 3:1). We will be held accountable, not only for our own lives, but for the influence we have on others’ lives. As I pondered this passage, it was a sobering thing to me as a woman teacher, a teacher of God’s Word, to realize how absolutely vital it is that I’m teaching the truth.

Now this woman, this Jezebel, this so-called prophetess, had a teaching role within the church. It was possibly an official teaching role. If that role included teaching men, which appears to be the case, one thing we know is that it was a violation of 1 Timothy chapter 2, where Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (verse 12).

We’ve taught on that passage other times on Revive Our Hearts. If I just made the hair on the back of your neck stand up, then you can go look at some of those other series where I try to explain what I believe Scripture teaches there.

But even if she had only been teaching women, if she had been within the bounds of Scripture on that point, there’s a caution here still that I think women’s ministries in local churches need to be aware of. That is it’s important for us as women in the body of Christ to be accountable, along with men who teach as well, to the spiritual leadership of our local churches, to the elders, to those who are responsible to safeguard the doctrine and the practice of the church. It’s their responsibility to oversee the teaching, to deal with error, and to make necessary corrections.

Now though this woman had a lot of influence in the church, not everyone in the church was on the bandwagon—the Jezebel train of thought. Not everyone agreed with her. If you skip down to verse 24 you see that Jesus addresses the rest in Thyatira who do not hold this teaching.

So the problem wasn’t that everybody in the church was following after her. The widespread problem in the church was that they tolerated her. They let her go on teaching and influencing. They didn’t stop her. That’s the issue Jesus addresses in this church. “You tolerate that woman Jezebel.” You’re tolerant.

So the question that’s sometimes asked is does doctrine really matter? In a lot of Christian circles today, doctrine has long ago gone out of vogue. It’s considered irrelevant. And heresy, you hardly hear that word anymore today. It’s a thing of the past so people think. So you hear this concept, “love unites; doctrine divides.”

Here’s another comment I found on a blog. The context was a blog exchange about the teachings of one man who is a well-known leader in the emerging church movement today and the dialogue was about his teaching. And one of the people commenting said, “The devil is in the details. Why are folks so obsessed with one individual’s doctrine [that is this teacher out there]? Could it be that none of that matters and we should instead be focusing on loving and serving God’s people who are in need?”

You see the thinking there? The doctrine doesn’t really matter. The devil’s in the details. Why are we so obsessed with one individual’s doctrine? Well, I’ll tell you, read Revelation 2, and you realize Jesus cared about one person’s doctrine. And that particular teacher that was being referenced—I’m not saying he doesn’t love God. I’m not saying he’s not pious, but I’m saying he is out there teaching some things that are flagrantly contrary to the Word of God, and we have to care about that.

“Beloved,” 1 John 4 says, “don’t believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets [teachers] have gone out into the world” (verse 1). This letter to the church in Thyatira highlights the danger of anything or anyone who challenges, who undermines foundational biblical belief or practice, doctrines: who God is, the Word of God, the gospel of Christ. And not only those who undermine sound doctrine, but also those who undermine the holiness of God’s people.

I hope in the letter to Pergamum that we talked about recently and this letter to Thyatira that you’re catching these two things that Jesus really cares about in the church: purity of doctrine and purity of behavior—right thinking, biblical thinking, and holiness of life.

Now as we look at these letters, it becomes apparent that there are no new heresies. By the way, heresy is any doctrine or teaching that departs from or denies the basic doctrines of Scripture. There are no new heresies. These old ones come back again and again and again. They get recycled.

There were two particularly dangerous doctrines that surfaced in the early church and they have kept surfacing in various forms and permutations throughout the history of the church. The first is what theologians call antinomianism. Don’t try and write that down. Go to ReviveOurHearts.com, look at the transcript, and it will show you how it’s spelled. But it essentially means “against the law.” The teaching here is that grace provides a license to sin. That we’re not under the law. We’re not obligated to keep God’s law.

Antinomianism is the opposite of legalism. Legalism is the notion that we can be saved or sanctified by keeping the law of God.

Now there was another teaching that surfaced. It was a heresy, and it was just starting to surface when these letters were written at the end of the 1st century. It’s called Gnosticism, from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge.” It’s a type of mysticism that claimed to offer this secret, deep knowledge or insight, a pathway to a higher experience. It was an admixture of some Christian elements and some pagan religious beliefs.

This thinking of Gnosticism that was so prevalent in the early church is also at the heart of much teaching and practice that is becoming more widely accepted and widespread in the church today. You don’t usually hear it called Gnosticism, but many of the teachings that are becoming in vogue in evangelicalism today have their roots in Gnosticism, which is heresy. It relies on subjective experience rather than the objective truth of God’s Word. Whenever you see that, watch out. There’s danger.

Now we’re going to look at this heresy and how it affected the church when we come to the next session. But Jesus says that this woman, symbolically called Jezebel, the woman in the church in Thyatira, was seducing His servants. So can true Christians be led astray? Can true Christians commit immorality or practice idolatry as people were in this church? The answer is, absolutely.

So how do you know if they’re true Christians or not? The answer is, do they repent? If they persist and do not repent, then they give no credible basis for claiming to be true Christians.

Here’s the concern I have as we think about the church in the 21st century. Within the Christian world today, there are many respected, influential teachers. I’m talking about authors published by Christian publishers. You can find their books in Christian bookstores. Many people in the public eye who are respected as Christian leaders.

People send their money to some of these teachers. They buy their books. They buy their CDs. They go to their websites. They imbibe their teaching and many who are promoting variations of the teaching of this 1st century Jezebel, so-called prophetess who is teaching and seducing my servants, God says, to sin.

So we need to learn how to identify this kind of teaching. We need to learn how to guard our own minds and hearts so that we don’t fall prey to it. We need to pray that the church will be safeguarded from the intrusion of this kind of teaching, this kind of doctrine. And the letter to the church in Thyatira is Jesus’ word of warning, not only to that church in the 1st century, but to us and to our churches today. The message is repent. Repent so that I don’t have to come and send judgment on your church.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

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