By Pastor Glenn Pease
For decades the American people have been lulled into complacency by hearing the Gallop Pole say that over 90% of Americans believe in God. This led to a false security that we were a godly nation. But now Gallop decided to get more specific, and he discovered that only 10% of Americans are really committed Christians who take Jesus seriously, pray, and live the Christian life. The vast majority of Christians in America are indistinguishable from the non-Christians in their life-style and values.
The church has contributed to this by a non-virtuous toleration, and permissiveness that says as long as you help us meet the budget, do as you please, but if you get caught, don't say where you attend church. Now I must confess that I am by nature a permissive person. I was raised by permissive parents and I loved it. I was free as the breeze, and did as I pleased from kindergarten on. I was downtown in Sioux Falls, the largest city in South Dakota, as a mere kid from 6 to 9. I was shining shoes and going to shows until dark. I played on railroad tressels, and by the dangerous falls. I went skinny dipping with the older boys and loved my childhood years. Because of that I became a permissive person. I loved the freedom and I survived, and so I just follow the golden rule and give others the same freedom.
I have to remind myself that how I turned out had nothing to do with the permissive life-style I had, but with the grace of God. All three of my closest friends in those permissive years ended up in the state penitentiary. I escaped that destiny only by the grace of God. I found Christ as my Savior at age 9, and this made a radical difference in the way I used my freedom. I choose not to steal with my friends. So what I know from my own experience is that freedom is great, and if you use freedom to choose good rather than evil, then permissiveness is a virtue. But if you use freedom to do evil it is a vice. So what you have is some people who will use their freedom for folly, and you become foolish for allowing them so much freedom. But others will use it for positive and healthy adventure, and you will get credit for being so bold as to allow such freedom.
What is needed then is discernment as to how individuals will use their freedom. If you have a child who will use every opportunity to do something dangerous and stupid you need to be more intolerant of their freedom. If they are responsible and can make wise use of freedom, then you can take more risk. Risk is what it is all about. God took a risk in letting Adam and Eve have access to the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and it was a high risk. They failed the test and fell. You can argue that God was too permissive, but that is the only way to find out how people will use their freedom. If you allow your child to go off to college, you are taking a high risk. They can use that new found freedom to become irresponsible and damage their lives. But if you don't take the risk, you can never know what their potential could be. Freedom is scary, and it is a gamble, yet there is no choice if you want the best.
So what does this have to do with the letter to the church in Thyatira? Everything! The main vice in this church is their permissiveness and the damage it is doing to the church. The other churches have had external problems and pressure from the community, but this church has an internal problem, and their corruption is an inside job.
The problem was a woman named Jezebel. It is symbolic name, of course, for nobody names their little girl Jezebel. The Jezebel of the Old Testament was a pagan who became the Queen of Israel by marriage to Ahab in about 884 B.C. She killed the prophets of God and brought idolatry and immorality into Israel. She was one of the most wicked women in history. She is the only woman I know of in history who was so evil that she became dog food after her violent death, and dogs ate her body. It was a gruesome judgment and ever since her name has never been found in those books of names for your baby. That name really went to the dogs, and so the only time you use this name is when you want to express contempt.
The original Jezebel was not a believer in the God of Israel. She was said to worship Baal, and when she came to Israel as queen she brought 800 priests of Baal with her. She was a missionary and was determined to promote her religion, which was soon quite popular because sex was part of the ceremony. The more you sowed your wild oats the better your crops would be was the bottom line of this fertility cult. Sex was a part of magic that made nature happy to cooperate. This sexual worship went over big in Israel, and was so successful that Elijah the prophet felt that he was about the only man alive in Israel who was not worshiping Baal. God had to assure him there were 7,000 who had not bowed to Baal, nor kissed him. 7,000 is a lot more than one, but it is a small percentage of a whole nation, and so Elijah was right. It was discouragingly successful to mix sex and religion.
So when we come to the New Testament we discover that there were Christians even who thought it was a good idea to mix sex with their faith. It is probably fortunate that we do not know exactly what this Christian Jezebel was teaching, for if we did it would probably be popular today. All we know is that she was a Christian leader who claimed to be a prophetess, that is one who brought a message to God to His people. Her message was persuading Christian people to practice idolatry and immorality as a legitimate part of their Christian worship. The woman was a teacher in the church and one who professed the gift of prophecy.
Gifts are truly wonderful, and are the key to getting God's work done in this world. But lets face reality: They are also a key problem in the New Testament. People can be gifted by the devil too, and the gifts are often the biggest problem in the church, as we see in the church of Corinth, and here again in Thyatira. This woman was gifted and persuasive. She was charismatic and verse 20 says she was misleading the servants of Jesus. We see that true Christians can be so gullible that they can be manipulated by clever and gifted people into just about anything, including so-called sacred sex.
It was because so many Christians were buying into this "Sex for the saints" package that the church as a whole was tolerating it. Not all in the church were buying her theology, and they were staying pure in their marriages, but they were not being intolerant of other Christians who were indulging. Here you have a case where Christians are deeply divided on a moral issue. It was hard to take a stand, for it could be your own brother or sister, or even your parents, or child, who was persuaded that Jezebel was a spiritual genius. For the sake of unity you don't want to rock the boat. Jesus does understand the dilemma of the faithful Christians, for He does not pronounce judgment on them, but only on Jezebel and those who follow her. The tolerant and permissive Christians who just passively let this immoral behavior happen without protest, he does not like, but he does not condemn them, but just urges them to stand fast, and not give in on their position.
Jesus recognizes that sometimes a Christian is in a catch 22 ethical dilemma, and does not know what to do, and all he or she can really do is not cooperate with those who teach and practice what is not God's will. Jesus did not expect the faithful Christians to change things, but just to keep pure themselves. He would have to deal with these deceived Christians Himself.
The mercy of Christ is overwhelming in this letter. We tend to see only the judgment, for it is severe, and capital punishment is even involved. But look at verse 21 where Jesus says, "I gave her time to repent, but she was unwilling." The patience and tolerance of Jesus is a wonder. Here is a Jezebel who is using her gifts to dishonor Christ and lead His servants astray, and yet He does not strike her with lightning and quickly bring her to judgment. He gives her time to repent instead. He is ready to forgive and restore even this Jezebel to a place of honor and service in the church. His mercy is beyond our comprehension. Most of us would go full speed ahead on judgment, but Jesus gave her another chance. It is a text like this that makes me very tolerant of fallen Christians. If a Christian has been awful, and has fallen into the pit, but has repented and experienced the forgiving grace of Christ, I see no valid reason for not using that Christian in any way Christ has gifted them to be used. If Jezebel had repented she could have been an honored leader in that church.
In verse 22 Jesus deals with those who commit adultery with Jezebel, and He says they too will suffer intensely unless they repent. Again, I am overwhelmed by the grace of Christ. I am a permissive person by nature and experience, but I do not think I could be as permissive as Jesus is here. He will permit these Christians who have deliberately committed adultery with Jezebel to escape judgment if they repent. I am permissive in the sense that I love to give people freedom, but if they abuse and misuse that freedom, I feel they need to pay a penalty. It is only right that there is a cost for violating the law of God. There is a penalty for violating the laws of men, and so why not more so when we break God's commands? Jesus says judgment is going to fall, and each will be repaid according to their deeds. That only seems right, but Jesus throws in a way of escape by means of repentance. You can seemingly get by with murder if you take this road, for Jesus will permit just about anything if there is repentance.
Every sin Jesus condemns in these 7 churches is neutralized by repentance. Seven times Jesus calls Christians to repent and escape judgment. We tend to think repentance is a word for non-Christians, but this is a major misconception. It was one of Jesus' favorite words to Christians. Jesus cannot tolerate the sins of Christians, and so He warns of judgment to come, but He can tolerate everything if Christians will repent. The number one way for Christians to escape judgment and stay in fellowship with their Lord is to repent. This means every Christian ought to know everything there is know about repentance. You remember the commercial that said, "Orange juice isn't just for breakfast anymore." Well, we can say on the basis of these letters to the 7 churches, "Repentance isn't just for unbelievers anymore." Christians need to learn to repent to taste the full grace of our permissive Lord. Ignorance here can make you suffer great judgment, and knowledge can lead to a crown.
Before we learn what repentance is we need to understand why it is seldom to never a popular subject on which to preach. The world is so full of neurotic Christians who are feeling guilty about everything under the sun. Nobody wants to add anymore burden to these poor souls who will not step on a crack lest they break their mother's back. Pastors are fearful of attacking immorality less they make Christians feel guilty about the legitimate joys of sexual passion. Virtue and vice are often so close they seem like twins, and people cannot tell them apart, and so we tend to leave the weeds alone lest we pull up the wheat along with them.
There are so many Christians who feel sinful and guilty about a host of acts an attitudes that are legitimate that it seems cruel to add to their load, and so to be sensitive to these fragile Christians we have gone to the other extreme of hardly ever referring to the real sins of Christians. Jesus, however, does not hesitate to deal frankly with Christian sins, and threaten severe penalty to those who do not repent. I am not interested in adding to the false guilt Christians feel, but these are clear violations of God's will that we ought to feel guilty about, for if we do, we can still escape the judgment by the road of repentance.
Repentance is not a negative thing, but a very positive attitude. It is an awareness that your behavior is not acceptable to God. It is harmful to yourself and others, and is a part of the kingdom of darkness. The examples Jesus uses in these letters of things Christians were guilty are:
1. Forsaking first love, and ceasing to do what you once did for the kingdom.
2. Sexual immorality and idolatry.
3. Tolerating these things openly taught and practiced.
4. Becoming dead, and forgetting there is a job to do for the cause of Christ.
5. Getting so caught up in the things of the world you become indifferent.
You will notice that the majority of Christian sinfulness is in bad attitudes, and not in wicked acts. We focus so much on sinful acts that we neglect the primary area where most Christians fail. We get so caught up in the immorality of the few that we don't even see the sins of the majority, which are bad attitudes of indifference, complacency, and just plain lack of love for God and neighbor. Jesus, however, calls Christians to repent of all these, as well as those guilty of immorality. We get some satisfaction out of Christians who fall into conspicuous sins, because we have not so fallen totally. We forget that our sins may be just as serious to Jesus even though they are only attitudes that make us worthless tools for accomplishing His will in the world. We need to get it straight in our mind that repentance is not just for Christians who have committed some clear violation of the ten commandments. It is for all of us who are in any way hindering the church from being all that Jesus wants it to be. We need to repent and become an asset rather than a liability to the church. This covers just about all of us in some way, and so we all need to know more about the road of repentance. The first thing we need to know about this road is:
I. EVERYONE IS FREE TO TAKE IT.
It is not a toll-way, but a freeway, and there is no discrimination. All races, classes, sexes, and a ages are equally welcome. In this way God is absolutely permissive. He will permit anyone to travel this road and escape the wages of sin. To our natural pharisaical mind this often seems unfair. That rascal, the Prodigal Son, went off and had his fling with wine, women, and song, and yet he was permitted to travel the road of repentance and come home. It did not seem fair to the older brother, and it doesn't seem fair to many of us, but if you want fair, you are under the law. Grace is not fair. It is mercy and forgiveness given to those who do not deserve it. If they deserved it, it would be fair, and a clear matter of the law. But since all have sinned and nobody deserves eternal life, there can be no salvation under the law. If anyone is to be saved there has to be grace.
There are going to be tax collectors and prostitutes in heaven said Jesus. There will be fine religious people who spent their life trying to obey the law who won't make it. That is not fair, but it is the fact, for the law condemns the best of men, and grace saves the worst of men. If you are under the law, you are sunk no matter how good you are. If you are under grace, you have hope no matter how bad you are, for you can travel the road of repentance.
What we need to see is that it is not only for the Prodigal Son, but for the elder son too. If he had traveled this road and repented of his self-righteousness, he too could have been a jewel instead of a jerk. It is a road for the good guys as well as the bad guys. It is the road everyone not only can travel, but must travel to be in a right relationship with Christ. The second this we need to see is:
II. IT IS A ONE-WAY ROAD.
Repentance means to change your direction. It means to turn around and go the other way. To be out of God's will is to be going the wrong way on a one way street. Repentance means to recognize this folly, see the danger of it, and turn around and go the right way; the way that God wills you to go. We think that repentance is just feeling sorry for going the wrong way, but this does not fit the Biblical concept of repentance. You can feel terrible for going the wrong way, but if you keep going that way you have not repented. Repentance means to change the way you are going, and go the right way on the one way road. Feeling bad and sorry is certainly a start, for there is not likely to be a change in direction if one feels just fine about the way they are going. But feelings won't cut it. No matter how awful you feel about going the wrong way you have not repented until you change the way you are going.
Have you ever been on a road you thought was taking you to a certain destination, and then you get doubts because it seems to be taking you the wrong way? The further you go, and the more desolate the area, the more likely you feel you are on the wrong road. If you are super stubborn you will pursue that road even though it takes you down a mud road. But most people come to a point where they realize this cannot be the right way. They find a way to get turned around and head back to find the right way. That is what repentance is. It is accepting the fact that you made a mistake and are taking the wrong way. You feel bad that you have wasted the time and the gas, but you realize wasting more time and gas is not the solution. You have to admit you blew it and turn around to find the right way.
The negative feelings are the acceptance of the bad news that you are on the wrong road. The bad news does come before the good news. You have to be convinced you were going the wrong way before you will have any motivation to turn around and find the right way. The sinner has to feel lost before he feels any need to be saved. The Christian needs to feel bad about his coldness and indifference before he will repent and seek the filling of the Spirit and a flame of concern for a lost world. We don't want to minimize the need for feelings in repentance, for they are vital, but they are not enough. The bottom line is still a choice of the will to turn around and go the right way.
Change is the essence of repentance. It is to stop doing what you are doing that is not making you an effective Christ-pleasing Christian, and to start doing what does make you that kind of Christian. It is not enough to just feel bad that you are not growing, serving, witnessing, and not being the disciple Jesus needs to touch lives that only you can touch. You have to change and start doing those things that make you a true disciple. Billy Graham says there are three elements in a Christians repentance. Conviction: a clear sense that I am going the wrong way. Contrition: a feeling of sorrow for the mistaken choices that have led me this wrong way. Change: if there is no change in the behavior and attitude there has been no true repentance. What was the main concern of Jesus in these letters to the seven churches? The answer is in one word-change. He wanted every Christian in every church to be an overcomer, and to in some way change their attitudes and actions to conform to his will.