05.02.10 The Testing of Our Faith, Revelation 2:18-29 Sermon Summary
It’s easy for me to ignore what the Bible says to the wealthy. I think, “I’m not wealthy, and so the Bible isn’t referring to me.” The letter to Thyatira changes that.
The Bible has a lot to say about our attitudes towards money. That’s because God is mostly interested in removing our idols and becoming the point of reference for our lives. Anxiety about money distracts us from what is most important. And you don’t have to be wealthy to be anxious about money.
Thyatira, the fourth city in the book of Revelation to receive a letter dictated by Jesus to the prophet John, was a business center. Ancient inscriptions testify to the presence of several trade guilds, including wood workers, linen workers, makers of outer garments, dryers, leather workers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave dealers, and bronze smiths.
In particular, Thyatira was known for its dealing in purple—dye and cloth. In the book of Acts we find Lydia from Thyatira who was a dealer in purple cloth. Purple was worn by the wealthy; it was a status symbol.
Thyatira was a business center, which means that the Christians who lived there, if they were not wealthy, had means to become wealthy. At least we can say they were surrounded by wealth. In any case, money was a potential distraction from their faithfulness to God.
So the warnings Jesus gives in this letter apply not only to the wealthy, from which most of us exclude ourselves. His warnings apply also to anyone who is anxious about money, and that includes most of us.
Jesus starts by praising the church in Thyatira for their deeds, love, and faith. I think it is very important to acknowledge the order. God praises them first for their deeds, then their love, and then their faith. The contrast with the first letter to the Ephesians is instructive. There, they had great doctrine, but little love. In Thyatira, they had great love—manifest in their deeds. I will return to this emphasis on deeds below.
Jesus criticizes the church for its tolerance of the prophetess “Jezebel.” Jezebel is a symbolic reference to the ancient queen infamous for her idolatrous lifestyle. She was a princess who married Ahab the King of Israel. He is remembered as the king most notorious for provoking the LORD’s anger. Jezebel had prophets killed, and made several attempts on the life of Elijah, ancient Israel’s most celebrated prophet. In order to steal a small parcel of land that Ahab wanted, Jezebel arranged the death of its owner Naboth. Scripture says she urged her husband on in evil deeds. Eventually, God anointed a new king who had her thrown out of a window where her body was devoured by dogs. (See 1 Kings 18, 19, 21; 2 Kings 9) You could hardly make a more damning reference to a person than to compare them to Jezebel.
Jesus’ reference to Jezebel is applied in that day to two specific teachings the church in Thyatira is tolerating: sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols. These are not the challenges facing our church today, so we have to move beyond a literal reading to discover how it applies to us today. I believe the Jezebel in our church today which threatens our existence is our anxiety about money. Here’s why.
In Luke 16:13-15 Jesus says we cannot serve both God and money. He says what is highly valued in the world is detestable in God’s sight. Such an either/or highlights the idolatrous nature of wealth and anxiety about money. It exposes the powerful temptation money poses to the church.
In James 4, the author states that friendship with the world is hatred towards God. We find another stark either/or. This passage refers to “friendship” as it relates to material things, which we fight over, James says, and which we ask for, but which we don’t use appropriately. Instead of using our material means in service to God’s purposes, we use our material means for our own pleasures.
There is ray of hope in this passage, however, and it is in James’ reference to the Spirit of God who is intensely jealous. This is the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead and is now at work within us through baptism. I infer from James that through this Spirit we may be able to overcome our divided devotion between God and material means.
Both Jesus and James pronounce judgment upon our dichotomous devotion to God and money. One method of overcoming our divided devotion is to perform good deeds. Why? Doing good deeds requires us to divest ourselves of the tempting presence of money. We give it away as a good deed, or in performing good deeds we give up time which we could otherwise devote to making money.
So it’s critically important to get our attitude right about money. If we don’t, if we are preoccupied with money, it is idolatry. We commit “adultery with Jezebel.” Not only does this derail our faithfulness to God, but it also distracts us from performing good deeds. Think about how many good deeds we could do if we weren’t distracted by our anxiety over money!
Good deeds in this life are essential for our experience of salvation. Psalm 62:9-12 contrasts the accumulation of wealth with the performance of good deeds. It’s not evil to accumulate wealth, but we incur judgment if we “set our hearts” upon it. Instead we are to recognize that both the rich man and the poor man will be judged according to their good deeds. And the Psalm urges us not to sacrifice good deeds to the accumulation of wealth and thereby jeopardize our experience of salvation.
Jeremiah 17:7-10 urges us to trust God in contrast to trusting in ourselves. The fruit of trusting God are especially evident during an economic downturn. It says that God searches the heart and mind and rewards us according to our good deeds—deeds we can do as we trust God instead of ourselves, instead of being anxious about money.
Returning to the book of Revelation, chapter 20:11-15 depicts the judgment of the dead. It is a marvelous passage in which all who have died are judged, not according to their faith, but according to their deeds. Our experience of salvation depends upon our doing good deeds. And we can only do good deeds if we aren’t preoccupied already with our money. We cannot serve both God and money.
James suggested we can overcome our dual devotions through the power of God’s Spirit resident within us. Jesus also gives us some guidance in Matthew 16:24-27. There he warns against our gaining the whole world but forfeiting our soul in the process. Instead, he says, we are to take up our cross and to follow him.
When we take up our cross, we do three things. (1) We remembering his cross. It was Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s will for his life that led to his cross. And when we take up our cross, we remember Jesus’ cross also. We do this together in worship when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The second thing that happens when we take up our cross is that (2) we live according to the vision of God’s Kingdom as it was revealed to us in Christ and his cross. And the third thing is the concrete expression of this life of faithfulness; we approach life as something that is given away rather than something that is hoarded. To find our lives, we must lose them, Jesus said. So we (3) perform good deeds by serving others in a self-sacrificial way.
The letter to Thyatira concludes with a promise that those who overcome, those who avoid the adultery with the Jezebel in their church, will rule over the nations (vs. 26). This is a reminder that we are one with the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. When we think we cannot overcome our temptation and anxiety over money, we have only to remember our union with Christ. We do this at the Table.
There is another promise to those who overcome; it is the gift of the morning star. This is a reference to Christ himself, a further assurance of our union with Christ. That union is established by the Spirit in baptism, and strengthened through Holy Communion. The final passage in Revelation depicts this beautifully. Jesus comes to reward us according to our good deeds. He brings the morning star. He invites us to drink of the water of life.
In the waters of baptism we receive the gift of Jesus Christ. Our identity is changed. We belong not to the Jezebel of our time, but to God. We are given strength for overcoming our idolatries, especially the lure of wealth. We are given hope for eternal life. With this identity, strength, and hope, let us perform good deeds, so that we too, like the church in Thyatira, might be commended for our deeds, love, and faith.
(For the meanings to the symbolic references in this letter, see the sermon scraps.)