If the Letter Fits – Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog
The “seven letters to the seven churches” is one of the best known and most frequently taught sections of the book of Revelation.
In it, seven letters from Jesus were sent to the churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Although they may be seven letters, they are not seven distinct messages, or symbols of seven types of people, or reflecting seven times. They contain a collective message for the church at all times and in all places. In other words, any church can be like any of these seven churches, and in any church there can be people who are like the people of those churches.
Most exponents like to focus on Laodicea, and it’s fun to exaggerate. First, Laodicea was rich. So wealthy that when they were struck by an earthquake in AD 60, along with several other towns in the region, they refused any government aid from the Roman Empire – aid that was being offered and going to other towns – because they had more than enough wealth to rebuild themselves. Second, he was known for producing the finest clothes in the world. This city was at the center of the fashion industry. Third, he was known for his school of medicine, and most notably for inventing an ointment that helped clear up vision problems. And ultimatelydespite everything they had, they were known for not having their own water supply.
It was to come to them through a series of viaducts and pipelines for at least six miles, and then it came from a series of hot springs. By the time the water reached them, it was often still lukewarm and, unless treated, it was disgusting to drink. It would make you vomit to drink it. If the water had become warm, it might have been useful for bathing; if it had come cold it could have been used for drinking. But lukewarm water was useless.
This is a powerful backdrop for what Jesus said to them:
“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish you were either! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I’ll spew you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I’m rich. I’ve got everything I want. I don’t need anything! And you don’t realize you’re miserable and miserable and poor and blind and naked.’ I therefore advise you to buy gold from me, gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy me white clothes so that your nakedness will not make you ashamed, and ointment for your eyes so you can see. I correct and discipline all I love. So be diligent and turn away from your indifference. (Revelation 3:14-19, NLT)
But for current cultural issues within the Church (and these seven were aimed at the Church, not culture in general), Thyatira might be the most relevant. They did much in the name of social ministry but neglected sexual ethics. Here is what Jesus had to say to them:
“I know everything you do. I’ve seen your love, your faith, your service… But I have this complaint against you. You allow this woman — this Jezebel who calls herself a prophet — to lead my servants astray. She teaches them to commit sexual sins and to eat food offered to idols. (Revelation 2:18, 20, NLT)
The Church of Thyatira had love for others and served them in their time of need down. social ministry? Nail it. Caring for the poor, widows, homeless, hungry, orphans? No one had a bigger heart for people’s physical and felt needs than they did.
Jesus’ problem was with their embrace of Jezebel.
Jezebel was an actual historical figure during the time of the Prophet Elijah who was known to be incredibly evil. In Revelation, in connection with the letter to Thyatira, her name is used to refer to a prominent woman who undermined loyalty to God by promoting tolerance of certain pagan practices; specifically, eating food sacrificed to idols and engaging in sexual immorality.
Thyatira was well known as a center for trade guilds. They were so strong that one could not work without belonging to one of them. But the trade guilds had a very pagan orientation. Membership involved attending guild banquets where meat that had been sacrificed to idols would be eaten in celebration of the idol.
This put the Christian in a difficult position. If they didn’t attend, they were out of a job. If they attended, they would compromise their faith. Jezebel came and said, “No problem – fret! It’s okay – God understands.
Many of them did.
This led to greater compromise as these feasts were linked to acts of sexual immorality, especially with Temple prostitutes. Essentially, “Jezebel” was teaching that you could embrace doing all the good in the life of Christ while simultaneously engaging in an immoral lifestyle – or at the very least accepting and tolerating it and even affirming it in others.
They were a church full of love, but not truth. Love and acceptance turned into affirmation and license. They gave food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless, but then worshiped false gods and slept with prostitutes – and they thought that was fine. The heart of the condemnation was that it was tolerated without being confronted by the church itself. It was as if no one wanted to appear intolerant or pass judgment on what seemed to be a personal life choice.
But Jesus says they should never have let that spirit, much less that teaching, exist within the church or in anyone’s life.
The letter to Thyatira is more and more the letter that the churches must send to them today. They are social-minded in terms of ministry and justice, but in that sense they seem complacent about sexual ethics. Even compromising, as if affirming homoerotic lifestyles, same-sex marriages, non-binary identities and more is part of what it means to be loving and socially conscious.
Jesus praised the church of Thyatira for its social commitments but reminded them that there is no place for the spirit of Jezebel in a Christian church.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To take advantage of a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, go to churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church and Culture podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and instagram to @JamesEmeryWhite.