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What Jesus Thinks Of His Church

When Jesus Observes Our Holiness

Erwin W. Lutzer | October 21, 2007

Selected highlights from this sermon

The church at Thyatira had its problems. They were permitting and tolerating sexual immorality. Jesus condemned this, proclaiming judgment over all who were involved. 

But forgiveness was still available to those who repented and overcame—and that forgiveness is offered to us.  Regardless of our sinful pasts, we can be used by God when we repent and trust in Jesus.

Today I am speaking on the topic of the holiness of God seen through the lens of scripture, particularly the church at Thyatira, and I’ll give you the reference in a moment.

Perhaps all of us have heard that story about the frog in the kettle. You put a frog into some hot water; it’ll hop out immediately. Put it in room temperature water and heat it slowly, and the frog will boil to death without a struggle. And I’d like to suggest today that in our culture we are being boiled to death, sometimes without a struggle. All that we need to do is to witness the great emphasis on self-absorption – materialism, and all of the syncretism of our day and of our culture, and I’ll dispense with all of the details. But I think it’s important for us to know that this is something that the churches always confronted, and no churches confronted it more directly than those that are found in the book of Revelation.

If you have your Bibles I’d like you to turn to Revelation chapter two – the church at Thyatira. If you’ve been a part of this series you know that we have been emphasizing that Jesus is the one who does the evaluation of these churches. The evaluation is not done by a consultant who is called and asked to come and give his opinion of the church. It is not done by even the elders or the leadership, important though that is at times. This is the word of Jesus who walks among the candlesticks. He says, “I walk among them,” and the candlesticks are the seven churches.

I also believe that every church that has ever existed probably is mirrored in one of these churches though, of course, churches have all of the elements, but I think that there is one that is particularly relevant to a particular church. That’s why we’ve encouraged the congregation to read about these churches, asking what church is Moody Church? That’s a good question.

Now the church at Thyatira – if you began at Ephesus you would go counterclockwise in what is today Turkey, and you’d come to Thyatira, one of the smallest churches, but word-wise I believe it has the longest letter from Jesus. So, whether a church is small or large, it has the attention of Jesus who observes just as he is doing this morning among our congregation right here.

Now, what I’d like us to do is to look at four different pictures of the church as we move through, and then in the end we’re going to give you hope and comfort and the joy of repentance. That’s the agenda. Thanks for joining us, and come with me on this journey.

The first glimpse of this church is one of faithfulness. I’m going to pick it up at verse nineteen. “I know your works and your love and faith and service and patient endurance.” In the church at Thyatira there was a garden with all of these Christian virtues that was growing and flourishing really, and we commend them for having these virtues of love and faith and endurance. In fact, it’s even better than that. You’ll notice that it says, “…and that your latter works exceed the first.” That’s wonderful.

This was a church that was on the move. It was spending time on things that really mattered and it was getting better at things that really matter. That’s the way we are here at the Moody Church. As a leadership we desire to be better at things that really matter. We don’t have it all together yet but we’d like to be able to keep working at it, and we’d like to improve, and we’d like to be all that we can be for the glory of Jesus and the advance of the gospel.

This was a picture of faithfulness, the kind of church you’d really like to join, and by the way, if you are living in the Chicago area, and this is your home church, this church (now I’m talking about this one right here) is a great church for you to join. But that’s the picture of faithfulness.

Let’s move on now and let’s look at a picture of compromise. Now Jesus is speaking in verse twenty, “…but I have this against you." I pondered that this week and I wondered if there’s anything that Jesus has against Moody Church. We’d like to know what it is so that we can take care of it. I would not want anything in Moody Church about which Jesus would say, “You do this, this and this, but I have this against you.” Wow! “…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.” and then he says, “I gave her time to repent (I’ll comment on that in just a moment) but you’re tolerating Jezebel.”

Now who in the world is Jezebel? Well, remember in the Old Testament Jezebel was a woman who was the wife of Ahab, and when he married her, he was marrying the daughter of a pagan high priest. So when he married her she brought all of her gods with her, and I just happened to have read this story recently and what a story it is of how she controlled her husband. It is because of Jezebel that Baal worship was introduced to Israel. She built the high places, it says. Those are the places where people used to go to worship. Furthermore, she killed the Lord’s prophets, and she herself had 850 personal prophets who always told her what she wanted to hear.

By the way, today when tour groups go to Israel, you can’t go to Samaria because of political reasons, but when I studied there in 1968 we were in Samaria and we saw the ruins of the palace. Some of the parts of the walls are still standing where Ahab and Jezebel lived. That’s who Jezebel was. She was a wicked woman. You read the story also of how they captured Naboth’s vineyard by having him killed because she wanted the land next door, and she told her husband how to get it, and she said, “Let’s kill Naboth,” and she organized a plan to do it, and what the text is saying is that, “You were tolerating Jezebel.”

Now I don’t think that there was a woman in Thyatira whose name was Jezebel, but there may well have been a woman who was teaching the same things as Jezebel, namely to practice immorality and to eat things offered unto idols. Now in order for us to put that in a historical context and to understand what we’re reading let me tell you about Thyatira.

The city of Thyatira was known for various guilds. They had bakers, bronze workers, clothiers and weavers. Remember the story in the New Testament book of Acts of Lydia, a seller of purple, whose heart the Lord opened to the gospel? Lydia was from Thyatira, and so you had these various guilds that functioned in a way like unions function today. You belonged, and each of these guilds had their own independent god, so if you were a part, for example, of a baker guild, maybe your god is Baal. If you are weaver, you belong to that guild. It may be Ashtoreth or some other god, and everybody was supposed to be loyal to the gods whose guild they worked for.

Can’t you imagine the pressure that the church was under? It’s something like some of you today. You’re working in organizations where if you become a part of it you have to go to certain places; you need certain indoctrination regarding gender issues, and so forth, that you may feel uncomfortable with. Well, take that and multiply it, because when these guilds got together for their feasts they ate and drank to their particular god.

Now it’s interesting that Paul, in another part of the scriptures, says it’s okay to eat meat offered unto idols. What he meant was that sometimes meat was offered unto idols and then later on it was sold in the market place, and Paul says, “Look, just go ahead and eat it.” Don’t ask any questions. Meat is meat. You sanctify it by the word of God and prayer, but this was different. This meant where you went in and “now let’s eat and drink to our god,” and the Christians couldn’t participate, could they?

I remember talking to a professional hockey player who told me the tremendous price he had to pray to be a Christian, because the coach would take all of the players to a men’s club and he was expected to go too, and he argued with the coach who said, “Well, are you going to be a team player or aren’t you? What kind of a prude are you? You’re not going to join us in doing this?” But he knew he couldn’t go so eventually, of course, he didn’t. That’s the kind of pressure the Christians in Thyatira were under.

Now back to Jezebel. Evidently there was a woman who calls herself (Did you notice the text? Always keep your finger on the text.) - calls herself a prophetess. And she was saying that “I am receiving revelations from God, and these revelations come from God and therefore, they should be received as such.” I don’t need to tell you, do I, that the world is filled with false prophets and prophetesses. All kinds of things are being said. When I wrote my book on discernment, I watched some of the false prophets on television.

The title of the book is “Who Are You to Judge,” but I was watching some of the false prophets on television, and I remember somebody saying, “Oh I’m just receiving a revelation now. God is just communicating now, and God is telling me …” and then stuff would come out of their mouths, some of which may be biblical, some of which may be unbiblical, but much of it plain silly, but this was passed off as revelations from God.

The prophetess fit into that category. By the way, I’ve often thought, “Wouldn’t Satan be a wonderful false prophet?” Could you see him on television telling Jesus this? “Jesus, I just received a revelation from God based on Psalm nine-one, verses eleven and twelve, where it says that “even if you fall, God will not allowed your foot to be dashed against a stone. You could jump from the pinnacle of the temple and God would catch you. Hallelujah.”

You notice how tricky this business of false prophets is. They quote scripture, but this lady apparently said, “You know what? It’s all right for you to participate in these orgies and feasts,” and she had a philosophical explanation for it, very probably based on what is known as Gnosticism, because Plato came along, you remember, and had a great impact on the Christian church. Most of it was negative, some of it, people thought initially, positive, but Plato taught that the body is to be separated from the soul, and because of this separation, Plato said, “This means,” (or at least high followers said) “I can commit sexual immorality in my body, but my soul is not affected. It’s just my body that is sinning, not my soul.” So that was one philosophical justification.

The other was a little different. Understandably, pagans even realized that there’s more to sexuality than simply a physical response. It is not just biological. It is also metaphysical and spiritual. Therefore, what they argued was that the highest point of worship ultimately with God – the highest point when you really connected with God – was through sexuality. The New Age movement sometimes refers to this as perhaps enlightenment or the experience of esotericism. It’s all tied in to the business of sexuality. So there was a woman who was apparently teaching that it’s okay because immorality is compatible with Christianity.

Now did the church endorse her? No, they didn’t endorse her. There’s no evidence of that, but notice this little word there in verse twenty – “…that you tolerate that woman, Jezebel.” Nobody was standing up and saying, “That’s sin and that’s wrong.” They turned the other way and let it happen.

So here you have then a story, a picture of compromise. The beautiful flowers that were growing in God’s garden now had some weeds that needed to be plucked out and the question was, who was going to do it?
By the way, with this business of sexuality and its connection to religion and religious experience, notice that Jesus has a word for it. I just marvel at the accuracy and the vivid description of God’s word. Verse twenty-four says, “…but to the rest of you at Thyatira who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan.” That’s where that comes from; that you can be immoral and still be compatible with Christianity. It is the deep things of Satan.

Contrast that with what Paul says about the deep things of God. “The love of God is deep. The wisdom of God is deep.” The things that belong to Satan are also deep. You can go into bookstores today and find thick books on esotericism, of having religious experiences. These are the deep things of Satan.

Well, we looked now at the picture of faithfulness, a picture of compromise, and now briefly a picture of judgment, and this gets very heavy. If you are sitting here feeling very, very guilty because of your past, hang on, because when this message ends, you are going to receive so much hope and so much deliverance that you are going to rejoice in the fact that you stayed to the end, so stay with me.

You’ll notice the picture of judgment now. Here it is in the text very vividly. Verse twenty-one, “I gave her time to repent but she refused to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold I will throw here into a sick bed and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation unless they repent of their works, and I will strike her children dead, and all the churches will know that I am he who searches the mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.” Wow!

What happened to this tolerant image of Jesus that exists in society – the Jesus who loves everybody and says that, in effect, God is nice, you’re nice – just be nice? What happened to that image of Jesus? Now he is tolerant if we repent. He is tolerant, as we shall see, and very gracious and filled with mercy, but I’m ahead of the story.

Let’s look now at the picture of judgment. There was a warning evidently that was ignored. “I gave her time to repent but she didn’t,” and we already know why she didn’t. I mean every human being knows why she didn’t. The euphoria of the sexuality was so great that the thought of living without that narcotic was unthinkable. So no matter how many rewards there would have been to repentance, she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

It’s like someone who I know who fell into immorality and adultery that said, “I’ll have my pleasure today and deal with the devil tomorrow. I’ll put it off; I’ll put it out of my mind.” God says, “I gave her time to repent.” I don’t know if there was some kind of a warning, obviously there was, but she didn’t.

Now comes a very tough passage, but you know, when you come to Moody Church we don’t ignore the tough passages. Just so that you know, if you are visiting, we actually believe this stuff. We actually believe this stuff I want you to know. [applause] Notice what it says. “I will throw her into a sick bed, and those who commit adultery with her. If she wants to be in an unholy bed I’ll make it a sick bed, and I will even, unless they repent, strike her children dead.” This could have been a local judgment that God brought. It could also be the natural consequences of immorality, as we shall see in a moment in the life of one person. Whatever it is, it’s very clear that Jesus said, “You’re tolerating Jezebel but I’m not going to. I’m not going to tolerate Jezebel,” and then he says, “I’m going to bring this judgment on…” because, he says, “…that the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart.” Why is that important?

Well you know why that’s important? It is because sexual sin is usually very secret. That’s where the shame comes from, and we hide our inmost thoughts, and we hide what we do, and Jesus wants to say, “You can hide it from others but you can’t hide it from me. I’m the one that searches the mind and the heart,” and even in those categories of the mind that have been walled off, for there’s a fire-wall so that you are one person in this life over here, but you’re another person on Sunday, and so forth. Even that firewall is penetrable by the one who searches the mind and the heart, “…and I will bring judgment to those who commit immorality.” This is strong stuff.

All right, now, let us look also at a picture of triumph, and what I want everyone to do who is listening (and, by the way, that includes the people who are listening to our morning worship service this morning and seeing it in eighty different countries, because as you know, we stream live on the internet, and we’ve heard from eighty different countries, and we welcome all of them as they join us for our morning worship service), to ask this question of yourself. Can you be a conqueror? And the answer is, “Yes, you can.” I want everyone in this congregation, everyone who is listening, and over the radio, I want all of us to commit to being conquerors, and before the message is over I’ll explain how.

But notice it says, “The one who conquers and who keeps my works till the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself has received authority from my Father.” This is mind-boggling. This is Psalm two where Jesus is going to rule over all the nations, and because we shall sit on the same throne as Jesus sits upon, the scripture teaches, because of that he says, “You, too, are going to have authority over the nations.”

Do you realize what kind of a future we have coming? Do you realize the greatness of God’s generosity? He says “To him who conquers….” Now every single Christian wants to be a conqueror, don’t they? If you are here today and you say, “I don’t want to be a conqueror,” you’re not a Christian. Every Christian wants to be a conqueror. The problem is that we do not want anything serious that we have to conquer. That’s the problem. Lord, let me be an overcomer, but I don’t want anything to overcome.

Hey, the fact is God gives us all kinds of things to overcome so that we qualify to be an overcomer – to be a conqueror. So Jesus said, “You conquer and you’re going to sit with me on my throne.” What do we have to conquer? As we’ll see in a moment, we have to conquer sexual sin.

Now the Bible goes on to say the words of Jesus. “…and I will give to him the morning star. He who has an ear to hear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” I’m going to give him the morning star. The morning star is Jesus. We learned in the letter last week, the letter to Pergamum, that Jesus said, “If you are faithful I’m going to give you a stone with a new name on it (almost certainly the name of Jesus) that no one else will know.” Do you realize the intimacy with Jesus is going to be so direct and so personal that there will be things between you and Jesus in heaven and in the kingdom that not even your wife knows about – not even your children know about. Nobody else will know, and when Jesus says here, “I give him the morning star,” he’s saying, “Whoever is a conqueror I will give to him more of myself.” What a commitment, what a wonderful motivation to be a conqueror.

Now, let me speak to you very candidly, because if I were in a counseling session I would discover that I’m speaking to people who, because of their sexual past, believe that they can no longer be conquerors, that they can no longer be an overcomer. I want to dispel that myth both now and forever.

I was thinking about this message this week, obviously, and I have a letter here I would like to read. It’s a little bit plain and direct, but we live in a culture where you need to understand that this is the experience of people, and after I’ve read the letter I’m going to refer to an article I also read this week, and we’re going to leave here absolutely committed to being conquerors. I’m going to take from Satan the weapon that he uses to make you think you can’t be a conqueror.

This is the letter received from someone who is no longer a part of the church, actually for some time, and the reason I read this letter is - did you notice? - Jesus said, “I’m going to throw this woman into the bed of sickness; I’m going to do this to her children unless she repents.” Repentance is the means to being a conqueror. I want everyone listening today to end up being a conqueror. So here we go; here’s the letter.

“I am a Christian and was very close to God when I came here to Chicago. In February I began dating this Christian guy. He attends another strict conservative church.” (She was, of course, coming to Moody at that time, so he attends another strict conservative church where his father is a deacon.) “In recent years he has fallen away from God and gotten very obsessed with sensuality and sex, including magazines, live shows, movies, etc. His mind is filled with sexuality.

I was a virgin, strong in God. We spent many hours together discussing religion, what we believed, and so we had a great relationship, but I didn’t know how overpowered he was by his sensuality. I knew of his past, his many one-nighters going to various porn shows with his buddies, etc., but I also knew the power of God, his grace and forgiveness. We grew to love each other, and early in April discussed marriage. Then I gave in to his sexual overtures. Since then our relationship has been very trying. We still love each other but we are caught up with our physical drives. It’s like two alcoholics trying to keep each other from drinking when their favorite liquor is sitting in front of them. We have been seriously trying to control these physical relationships and are now (catch this) into a very hateful, guilty, frustrating relationship. If left alone, we indulge. I want him to read some books where we can receive help, but he has no time to read the books because he spends hours and hours watching television and other things. I want out (this woman says). I love this man but I love God more. I know how great it is to be close to God and to commune with him. God has sent many afflictions to both of us; in my case it is sickness (That’s interesting.), financial hardships, job pressures, and now (catch this) both of us hate and abuse each other.

Where does abuse come into the home and in the family, sexually and otherwise? It usually comes from the backwash of sexual sin that has never been taken care of, and she says, “I want to get back to God and his word. I need someone to share this with. I need Christian fellowship, but I am afraid of being added to the list of ‘poor souls who sin, that some people enjoy gossiping about.’ I don’t like being ganged up on by well-meaning Christians.

I should explain that I was raised in a Christian home, a strict community, and a pious church. I taught Sunday school, Bible school, led youth groups and summer camps. I was sure I would be a virgin until I married. I felt sorry for those people who were sexual slaves. I couldn’t understand why two people in love couldn’t wait until they were married. Now I’m one of those people, but I want to get back to God, because this life is not fun.”

Now, my question is, “Can this woman be an overcomer?” This past week God, in his providence, allowed me to come across an article by John Piper in which he laments the fact that there are so many young people who begin with a radical love for Jesus, radical obedience. They’re going to change the world, and they’re going to go to the mission field, and then they fall into sexual sin, and as a result, they feel disillusioned, guilty, unusable, soiled – like the testimony that we heard today – filled with guilt, and Satan takes that weapon of guilt and says, “You’re a loser. Look at what you’ve done. God can never use you.”

Give me just a few moments, my friend, to deliver you from that idea. Everyone who is listening to me today can be an overcomer. You’ll notice it says, “I’m going to do this unless they repent.” In order to understand that I want to make a quick reference to a passage of scripture in Colossians where is says simply that “God made us alive together with Christ, having forgiven us our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

My friend, when Jesus died on the cross all the guilt that you bear, and the self-hatred that is in your heart was paid for by him. [applause] Jesus paid it all. Let me ask you, how many sins did Jesus pay for when he died on the cross, how many of your sins? He paid for all of them. (Thank you for answering by the way.) Usually when we as preachers throw out a question like that, we’re not expecting a response, so thank you. Let’s say then together “All of them” because all of your sins were future when Jesus died. You hadn’t even showed up on this planet so that you could sin yet, and it says that he forgave us all our sins by taking the guilt and the wrath that was against us and he said, “I’m going take it from you, and I’m going to nail it to the cross,” and Jesus is going to pay your debt, so that we take from Satan the one weapon that he always uses when he says, “God can’t use you. You’re a second-class citizen. Settle for something less than wholehearted obedience and blazing commitment to God. Settle for something less because after all look at what you’ve done.” And we say, “Satan, be gone, for it is written, “He forgave all of our sins,” and “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and he is just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from every single unrighteousness.”

You women, you blessed sisters, who have had an abortion, when Satan comes to you and says, “Look at what you’ve done, and you expect to be used by God?” you say to him, “Yes, I expect to be used by God because of the wonder of his grace.”

You men, struggling with pornography – can God use you? Yes, if you repent, if you come under the authority of Jesus and say, “Yes, I’m willing to repent of my sin, and the guilt and the sense of failure and loss emptiness was carried by my savior who bore my sins and carried my sorrows.”

“Before the throne my surety stands, my name is written on his hands, and here I stand.” That’s what we mean when we speak of the substitution of Jesus for sinners. You say, “Well, for whom did he pay the penalty?” and the answer is to all those who believe in Jesus and recognize their need and trust him. And after we trust him, after we receive his forgiveness, and stand on the basis of his promises, we know that it’s not safe to sin, as we learned last time, but we stand there saying, as it says in the Old Testament, “Rejoice not against me, oh mine enemy. Though I fall I shall rise again.”

A number of years ago a man in prison wrote to me, and by the way, we have lots of people listening to our broadcasts in prison, both on the Internet and on the radio. He wrote to me and said, “I raped four women.” He said, “I ruined their lives. Now I’ve come to Christ but can God really, really forgive me?” See, the thing that makes it so difficult is that those poor women’s lives may have been ruined, or partially ruined.

How do you think I write back? Something within us says “Well, not you because you deserve to burn,” and then we’re reminded that I deserve to burn and you deserve to burn, and we all do. I wrote back and I said I want you to visualize two trails. On one trail it is so messy and ugly that the driver has gone into the ditch – and swerved into the ditch – in an ugly way all the way along the line. The other way is very well traveled, and now I want you to visualize eighteen inches of snow falling on both trails. You can’t tell the difference between this one and this one because they are both covered by the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Yes, “Come unto me,” says the scripture. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white a snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

Now, if I were counseling you, like if we were having a cup of tea together, you know you might say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, if I really do come clean on this and repent, whom do I have to talk to? What do I have to make right?” Those are all questions I can’t answer from the pulpit, but I do know this. God will show you even that because you, today, can be a conqueror regardless of your past, and what is the promise? “To those who conquer, who keep my works until the end (and may God grant us the grace to do so), to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule over the nations, and rule with me.” Wow! Is it worth it? Is being a conqueror worth it? [applause]

Let’s pray.

Our Father, in a world that is so broken, help us to encourage people, to realize that regardless of their past, regardless of what has been done to them and by them, that your grace meets them at the very point of need. Help them, Father. Help all of us. All of us have done things of which we are ashamed. We bring those into your presence for forgiveness, for cleansing and for the whiteness of your holiness and grace. We desire to be a holy church. Oh help us, Father. We pray for those who have listened to this message who perhaps this afternoon or tomorrow will spend an hour or two in prayer just finally laying it all down and dealing with it in your presence. And now we ask that even as we sing that this may be an expression of our heart.

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