Years ago, I read a book by Dr. Erwin Lutzer titled, Hitler’s Cross (1998). In the book, Dr. Lutzer, who at time was Senior Pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, described how Adolf Hilter used the church in Germany to advance his agenda. Unbelievably, throughout much of Nazism, the church was Hitler’s leading advocate. And not just any church. It was the Germany Evangelical Church, led by Ludwig Muller! Eventually a group of believers, including Martin Neimoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, broke from the Germany Evangelical Church and formed the Confessing Church. For this, “act of treason,” Neimoller spent eight years in a concentration camp and Bonhoeffer, after spending two years in a concentration camp, was hanged on April 9, 1945. On the back of the book’s jacket, the publisher wrote, “Hitler’s Cross is the story of a nation whose church forgot its primary call and discovered its failure too late.”
Partly because of what I think is going on in our nation between the evangelical church and political powers; and partly because I have been studying the seven churches in Revelation, I have been thinking a lot about Hitler’s Cross. Woody Allen said, “History has to repeat itself because nobody was listening the first time around.” The greatest danger of any church, be it a local church, or a group of like-minded churches, is not rejecting their beliefs and practices. The greatest danger is forgetting our true purpose, compromising, and adding to what we believe and practice. It’s called syncretism, and it’s not a compromise by subtraction, but a compromise by addition. It’s not a rejection of your faith, but an adding to your faith. Here are some modern examples of what I mean:
- “I can still follow Jesus and believe in karma.”
- “I can be a faithful disciple of Jesus and still be involved in immorality.”
- “I can be ruthless in my business dealings with others, and still worship Jesus.”
- “I can believe in the Bible and still believe in hedonism, materialism, individualism, nationalism, consumerism, etc. etc. etc.”
Most of us would never out and out reject Christ, but we are tempted every day to add other beliefs and other religions and other philosophies to our faith in Jesus. Especially if such beliefs are culturally acceptable. This was the problem with the church in Thyatira.
The Church at Thyatira
As we continue our journey through the churches in Asia Minor, it is interesting to note that the longest letter is written to the church in the smallest, and least important, of the seven cities. The most important thing about the small city of Thyatira was that it was the gateway city to the more important city of Pergamum. It was also the home to a military base that protected Pergamum. The main commerce in Thyatira was wool and dye. Lydia, an early follower of Jesus and a “dealer in purple cloth” was from Thyatira (see Acts 16:14). The main characteristic of this small town was that it was the home to many different workers’ unions. The people Thyatira, and in the church, were blue-collar people. It was these unions that posed the biggest threat to the church! Each union had its own deity. Being a member of that union meant you worshiped that deity. If you were not a member of a union, you had a difficult time finding work or running a business.
John, begins the letter by describing Christ. He writes, “To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (Revelation 2:18). This picture of Jesus is a direct attack on the local union deities. The guardian god over all the deities of Thyatira was Apollo, the son of Zeus, the god of the bronze trade. The local coins of Thyatira had Apollo’s image on them with the inscription, “son of god.” The phrases, “blazing fire” and “burnished bronze” are clear references to Apollo that the Christians in Thyatira would easily understand. Jesus is saying to the church, “I am the true Son of God! I am greater then this so-called god of bronze!” This description of Jesus would encourage the believers who had either quit their jobs, or lost their jobs, because they refused to join the trade-unions and worship the gods of the unions. Here is a question for your consideration: If need be, are you willing to lose your job because of your faith in Jesus? Here is another question: Who do you trust more, Jesus, or your own ability to provide for yourself? Remember, the big idea behind all seven letters is radical churches produce radical disciples. Choosing your faith over your job is radicle!
Jesus then compliments the church by saying, “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more then you did at first” (Revelation 2:19). What a strong commendation! Much was right with this church. Jesus knew about their love, faith, service, and perseverance. And, unlike the church in Ephesus that had lost their first love, the church in Thyatira had grown in their love, doing more now then they did at first!
Now the critique, and its long. Jesus says, “Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (Revelation 2:20-23).
More than likely, “Jezebel” was not the woman’s real name. Rather, it referred to her leading people astray with idolatry and immorality, just like the Jezebel of the Old Testament (see 1 Kings 16-19). This woman, however, was an influential leader in the church in Thyatira, which is what made her teachings so dangerous. Jesus calls her a “false prophetess.” Some scholars speculate that she was the pastor’s wife.
What was “Jezebel’s” teaching? She was teaching compromise for the sake of cultural expediency. “She was telling the Christians to compromise with the pagan culture and religion, suggesting they could stay in the (trade-unions) and participate in the rituals while being ‘Christian’ in their hearts.” It was compromise by addition. It was syncretism! Here argument was something like this: “Look. We know those gods of the unions are not really gods at all. We believe Jesus is the true God. But why suffer needlessly? Just go along with the game. Why open yourself to criticism and poverty and persecution? All you have to do is, during the week, be part of the union. Go to your workplace parties. Enjoy the feasts. If it helps you provide more for your family, participate in the immorality that goes on in every workplace. Do what you have to do to advance in your career. Just make sure you keep worshiping Jesus. Make sure you still tithe and go to church. God will understand. It’s the only sensible thing to do. Surely God doesn’t want you to be unemployed and poor! There is no need to suffer if you don’t have to.”
The scary thing about this “Jezebel” is that she spoke with authority, claiming her teachings were from the deeper things of God, things that only she could understand. It’s hard to disagree with people who proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord!” But Jesus said her false teachings were really the deep secrets of Satan! (Revelation 2:24). The only solution for her and her followers was to repent before severe judgment comes.
Here is the application: Sometimes, following Jesus means you make the more difficult decision, the harder right, even though you know that decision will make your life more painful. A radicle disciples makes the right decision even when the wrong decision would be easier. The Bible says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on our own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
Here is another application: It is one thing to sin yourself. But it is something totally different, and more damning, to cause others to sin. Listen to this warning from Jesus Himself, “And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck” (Mark 9:42).
Next comes the challenge: “Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you): Only hold on to what you have until I come” (Revelation 2:24-25). What a simple challenge! What a difficult challenge! Jesus is telling the church, and us, DO NOT COMPROMISE! Keep going in the direction you are going. A “Jezebel spirit,” then, is a spirit of compromise before it is anything else. Compromise is the one sin that opens the flood-gates to other sins. That is why it is so dangerous. A radicle disciple of Jesus does not compromise his or faith for anything, regardless of the price!
And now comes the promise: “To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—‘He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:26-29). The promise is two-fold: To those who do not compromise, Jesus will give authority and victory. The quote about “an iron scepter” and broken “pottery,” comes from Psalm 2:9. But it would also have significant meaning to the believers in Thyatira because of the iron workers union and the pottery union. Jesus is saying, “You may think that the unions are in control. But in reality, you will one day have authority over them.” The morning star is the first star that pushes the night out of the way, making room for the new day. This was also reference to the god Apollo (whom the Christians in Thyatira would be familiar with) who rode a golden chariot, pulled by fiery horses, each day, chasing the night away, brining in the new day. Right now, things may look dark. But don’t give up! Keep going! Stay true! Don’t compromise! Jesus is the God of each new day. Victory is coming in the morning! The psalmist wrote, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5, KJV).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a member of the Confessing Church in Germany, who opposed Hitler, and was imprisoned and hung for it, wrote a book while he was in the concentration camp. The title of the book was, The Cost of Discipleship. In it, he talks about “cheap grace;” grace that compromises to avoid any type of suffering and persecution, and “costly grace;” grace that refuses to compromise regardless of the consequences. Listen to what Bonhoeffer wrote:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
Costly grace calls us to be radicle disciples. It calls us to never compromise our faith. If the Christians could live out their faith in the city of Thyatira, we can live out our faith in the city of Franklin.
 Dr. Jonathan Welton, Understanding the Seven Churches of Revelation (2015). Welton Academy, Rochest, NY, p. 93. Parenthesis added for clarification.