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Sexual immorality and idolatry in the church (Revelation 2:19-20)

In our last post, we saw Jesus beginning His letter to the church in Thyatira. He presented Himself as One who is both pure and the purifier. Then, He says to the church,

“‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 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. (Revelation 2:19-20, ESV)

As He has done in the previous letters, Jesus first encourages the good things that He sees in the church. He sees their love and faith and service and patient endurance. Remember that the early church was under much persecution for following Christ, but this church demonstrated love, faith, service, and perseverance in spite of it all.

Furthermore, this church had not let up. Jesus says that their "latter works exceed the first" (v. 19). In other words, they started strong in these areas, and they kept growing. Praise God from whom all blessings (including obedience) flow!

And then, as He has in a couple of the previous letters, He turns to provide constructive feedback. I call it "constructive," because Jesus isn't simply tearing down the churches. He's calling them to repentance.

In verse 20, He says that He has something against them, namely that they tolerate "that woman Jezebel." Jezebel was a queen in the Old Testament, the wife of King Ahab, and she was not remembered fondly. She promoted the worship of the false god Baal and persecuted the prophets of the Lord. It's likely that there wasn't a woman named Jezebel in the church at Thyatira, but rather someone or a group of people who were promoting sexual immorality and idolatry in the church.

I tend to think that this Jezebel was an actual woman in the church (even if she wasn't named Jezebel) because Jesus says of her in verse 20 that she calls herself a prophetess. She was claiming to speak on behalf of God and was thus able to deceive people into sin. She was teaching and seducing Christ's servants "to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols" (v. 20). How she seduced Christians to practice sexual immorality is not said to us here, but that's not a very difficult task, given that Christians have an ongoing struggle with the flesh and sexuality is a strong drive for human beings. It doesn't take much, sadly, to convince people that certain acts of sexual immorality are acceptable when they're really not.

Do we not see that all over the visible church today? Do not many churches "affirm" all sorts of sexual immorality under the banner of "love is love"? This is nothing new. Jezebel was doing it in the church already, before AD 100.

Besides tempting the believers to practice sexual immorality, she also seduced them to "eat food sacrificed to idols" (v. 20). We know from other places in the New Testament that eating food sacrificed to idols is not a sin in and of itself. So, what's probably being referred to here is actually celebrating pagan feasts worshiping false gods. Whatever Jezebel was teaching encouraged the Christians that that was okay.

Again, that's not new to us. Do we not see syncretism all over the visible church today? Whether it's the Prosperity Gospel, New Age Spirituality, Christianized Paganism, Cultural Christianity, or Ecumenism, many people who identify with Christ enjoy identifying with teachings and practices contrary to Christ.

The key problem with the church at Thyatira was that they were tolerating this Jezebel, allowing her to spread falsehood, which came with bad fruit.

This is all a reminder for us that, as Christians, we are not to tolerate false teaching, sexual immorality, and idolatry in our churches. If we spot any teaching that is contrary to the word of God, we need to call it out immediately, that it might not be the yeast that leavens the dough. And if we see sexual immorality or idolatry in the church, we need to do the right thing and address it in love instead of tolerating it.

Christ died on the cross to deliver sinners like us from God's wrath on us due to sins like immorality and idolatry. It would dishonor Him to allow those things to destroy our churches. Be vigilant. Be loving. Destroy immorality and idolatry before it destroys you.

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