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If the Letter Fits

Dr. James Emery White
Dr. James Emery White
2022 16 May

The “Seven Letters to the Seven Churches” is one of the more well-known and frequently taught sections of the book of Revelation. 

In it, seven letters from Jesus were sent to the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. While they may be seven letters, they aren’t seven distinct messages, or symbols of seven types of people, or reflective of seven eras. They contain one collective message for the church in all times and all places. In other words, any church might be like one of these seven churches, and within any church there can be people who are like the people in these churches.

Most expositors like to focus on Laodicea, and it is fun to exegete. First, Laodicea was wealthy. So wealthy that when they were hit by an earthquake in A.D. 60, along with several other towns in the region, they refused all government aid from the Roman Empire – aid that was being offered and going out to other cities – because they had more than enough wealth to rebuild on their own. Second, it was known for producing the finest clothes in the world. That city was at the center of the fashion industry. Third, it was known for its medical school, and specifically the invention of an ointment that helped clear up vision issues. And finally, despite all that they did have, they were known for not having their own water supply.

It had to come to them through a series of viaducts and pipe ways over at least six miles, and then it came from a series of hot springs. By the time the water got to them, it was often still lukewarm, and unless it was treated it was disgusting to drink. It would make you retch to drink it. If the water had come hot, it could have been useful for bathing; if it had come cold, it could have been used for drinking. But lukewarm water was good for nothing.

It’s a powerful backdrop to what Jesus said to them:

“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other!  But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. So I advise you to buy gold from me — gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see. I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference.” (Revelation 3:14-19, NLT)

But for current cultural issues within the Church (and these seven were meant for the Church, not for culture at large), Thyatira might be the most relevant. They were doing much in the name of social ministry but overlooking sexual ethics. Here was what Jesus had to say to them:

“I know all the things you do. I have seen your love, your faith, your service… But I have this complaint against you. You are permitting that woman — that Jezebel who calls herself a prophet — to lead my servants astray. She teaches them to commit sexual sin and to eat food offered to idols.” (Revelation 2:18, 20, NLT)

The church at Thyatira had love for others and serving others at their point of need down. Social ministry? Nailing it. Caring for the poor, the widow, the homeless, the hungry, the orphan? No one had a bigger heart for the physical, felt needs of people than they did.

Jesus’ problem was with their embrace of Jezebel. 

Jezebel was an actual historic figure during the time of the prophet Elijah who was known for being incredibly evil. In Revelation, in relation to the letter to Thyatira, her name is used to signify a prominent woman who undermined loyalty to God by promoting tolerance toward 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 you couldn’t work without belonging to one of them. But the trade guilds were very pagan in orientation. Membership involved attending the 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 did attend, they would be compromising their faith. Jezebel came along and said: “No problem – eat away! It’s okay – God understands.”

So many of them did.

This led to greater compromise because those feasts were tied to acts of sexual immorality—particularly with the Temple prostitutes. In essence, “Jezebel” was teaching that you could embrace doing all the good of the Christ life while simultaneously engaging in an immoral lifestyle – or at the very least accepting and tolerating and even affirming it in others. 

They were a church full of love, but no truth. Love and acceptance turned into affirmation and licentiousness. They would give food to the hungry and housing to the homeless, but then worship false gods and sleep with prostitutes—and they felt this was fine. The heart of the condemnation was that this was tolerated without being confronted by the church itself. It was as though nobody wanted to seem intolerant or judgmental about what appeared to be a personal lifestyle choice. 

But Jesus says that they should have never let that spirit, much less that teaching, exist within the church or within anyone’s life.

The letter to Thyatira is increasingly the letter that churches need sent to them today. They are socially minded in terms of ministry and justice, but in so being, they seem complacent on sexual ethics. Even compromising, as if affirming homoerotic lifestyles, gay marriages, non-binary identities and more is part of what it means to be loving and socially conscious.

Jesus commended the church at Thyatira for their 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 founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit 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 & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.