READ : Revelation 2:18-29
Everybody wants to be a winner. The question is: What is it exactly that you want to win?
One of the things that grabs my attention in the letters from Jesus to the seven churches is what he promises to those who “conquer” or who “overcome.” When I read those, I think “I’d surely like to be one of those victors, those winners.” How about you? Think of what’s in store for the people who fit that description. Here’s a brief overview: Those who conquer, says the Lord, will have permission to eat from the tree of life. They won’t be harmed by “the second death.” They’ll taste of the hidden manna, and receive a white stone with their new name on it. They’ll have authority over the nations and – think of this – they’ll be given the morning star! They’ll be clothed in white robes. Their names will stay in the book of life and Jesus will speak for them in heaven. They will be pillars in the temple of God and will have God’s name inscribed on them. Finally, they’ll have a place with Jesus on his throne. What a future for all whom Jesus calls “the conquering ones,” the winners!
Yet, as we read these first letters, one after another, we aren’t told exactly what it means to overcome, to be victors. That is, we don’t get much light on that until the letter to Thyatira. That’s the one we want to look at today. Listen while I read it, and be on the lookout for God’s description of a real winner:
And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze:
“I know your works – your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first. But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call ‘the deep things of Satan,’ to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden; only hold fast to what you have until I come. To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations; to rule them with an iron rod, as when clay pots are shattered – even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
Rev. 2:18-29, NRSV
PRESSURE TO COMPROMISE
First let’s think about what Thyatira was like, and the pressures that Christians were facing there. Thyatira was not a major city and apparently not a stronghold of emperor worship. It was a blue-collar town which featured an ancient form of what we today call labor unions. The city was full of guilds, one for each occupation. Remember Lydia, whom the Apostle Paul met in Philippi? She was originally from Thyatira, where she had been a seller of purple goods. That was her particular guild.
The problem with the guilds was that if you worked at any trade or craft, you had to belong to one, and some things about membership were sorely compromising for Christians. Guild meetings included a common meal which was dedicated to some favored god and frequently led to the worst kind of debauchery. How were believers to cope with a situation like that?
There was a group in the church that had a ready answer. They were known as the Nicolaitans, and their prophetess was called “Jezebel.” For these people, membership in the guilds, and sharing in their feasts was no problem. So what if you ate food sacrificed to idols? And what was wrong with the drinking and sexual fun afterwards? They actually encouraged Christians to share in this lifestyle.
“Everyone knows” they said “that these idol-gods are nothing, and that people who have the Spirit can’t be defiled by the flesh. And besides, ‘business is business.’ You’ve got to make a living, and these are the rules of the game.”
WHAT CAN’T BE TOLERATED
Not everyone in the church had bought into this view. Many were scandalized by it. But up to this time, no one had raised much opposition to the group and its teaching. Most were practicing “tolerance” within the church.
But in the eyes of the risen Lord, those “eyes like a flame of fire,” this whole movement was intolerable. He saw the prophetess as a veritable “Jezebel” – like that wicked queen who had tried to bring Baal-worship into Israel, killing God’s prophets, filling the land with abominable things. To tolerate this teaching could only mean death to the church, and swift judgment. The judgment would fall not only on the instigators of this, but also on any who went along with it.
In contemporary American culture, tolerance has become for many the supreme virtue. Every belief and life-style, however bizarre and destructive, is to be viewed benignly because, on this view, there are no absolutes. No final truth is acknowledged as a measure for what is false. No moral standards are recognized by which any behaviors can be called wrong. Anything goes.
We can understand views like that among those who reject the biblical faith, but they can never be accepted within a church that lives under Christ’s lordship. In Thyatira, as in Main Street, USA or anywhere else, there can be no kinship, no accommodation between Jezebel and Jesus.
MUCH TO COMMEND
But aside from this misguided tolerance of evil, there was much to commend in the church at Thyatira. The risen Lord says that he knows their works, and he celebrates them. He speaks of love, their self-giving concern for each other. He sees in them faith, a trust in him that leads to commitment. He applauds their service – humble ministry to the needs of others. And he mentions also patient endurance – their holding on and remaining true to him, even amid persecution and suffering.
Further, Jesus notes that their last works are greater than the first. They haven’t followed the sad course of the church in Ephesus, leaving behind their first love. These believers are now more fruitful in doing good than they were at the beginning.
And not all the Christians in Thyatira have been duped by Jezebel and her crowd. Jesus has a special word for those who haven’t learned these “deep things of Satan,” who haven’t swallowed this false teaching. He has no burden to lay on them. In his eyes, they are “doing just fine.”
A REAL WINNER
But here we have our description, the fullest given in Revelation, of what Jesus means by his phrase “the one who overcomes” or “the conquering one.” Get ready now. Here is the Lord’s description of a winner.
The world of sports has been electrified in recent times by the exploits of golf’s “phenom,” Tiger Woods. His victory at the Masters, his fourth consecutive in a major tournament, has set a new standard in the history of the game. He seems on track to become golf’s all-time greatest winner.
A number of factors help to understand his meteoric rise: training almost from infancy by expert coaches, splendid physique, explosive strength, fierce competitiveness. But students of golf assign even more weight to other things in Tiger’s makeup: his intensity of concentration, his endless, painstaking quest to improve, his utter dedication to the sport. Surely the greatest peril to Tiger’s future success would be the loss of this single-mindedness.
Becoming a “winner” in the Christian race seems to involve something akin to these inner factors. Early training and natural gifts are surely helpful, but not crucial. You can be a true conqueror without those. Jesus lets the Christians in Thyatira see what is really involved in “overcoming.” First, you “hold fast to what you have.” What they have, of course, is a living trust in Jesus. They hold the saving truth of the gospel, the faith once delivered to the saints. They have learned of God’s great love in the gift of his son. They have heard the call to repent and believe, and have responded. They have committed themselves unreservedly to the lordship of Christ. They have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, new life in the fellowship of God’s people.
But all of this is under constant threat and challenge, whether in first-century Thyatira or in the modern world of the 21st century. The powers of evil seek to steal what believers have, to kill and to destroy. A thousand siren voices in the surrounding culture invite them to waver in their faith, compromise their commitment, conform to the values and life-styles of the world. And much in their own remaining sinfulness makes them acutely vulnerable.
Conquerors, in the midst of all this, seek to steer a straight course. They hold fast to Christ. Nurtured in the Christian fellowship, fed by the Word of God, persistent in prayer, they are after what Soren Kierkegaard called “the purity of heart that wills one thing.” They have found the treasure of the kingdom, the unsearchable riches of Christ, and they will not let go. They’ll sell everything else with joy, so that they may have Jesus and be found in him.
Here’s the second mark of a winner. It’s the person, says the Lord, “who continues to do my works to the end.” The conflict involves more than holding fast our faith in Jesus; it means also following him in daily discipleship. The believers in Thyatira are surely on the right track. Their last works are greater than the first. They are more active than ever in doing the will of God, in works of love, service and witness.
Some time ago I spoke at a conference on the subject of “leaving a legacy.” It was a conference for people encouraging them to remember in their death the causes they had cared about and supported during their lifetime. What especially spoke to me as I talked about this was the matter of the total legacy we will leave behind us. After my talks, a friend said to me: “You don’t have to worry, Bill, you’ve already left your legacy.” I think I know what he meant by that. I appreciated the kindness and affirmation of his words. But he was wrong. We haven’t left our legacy until we have breathed our last. The Christian life is all about perseverance – continuing in faith and obedience. The choir at our church has a song they sing that I like to hear and am moved by, “In Jesus’ name, we press on.” In Jesus’ name we press on. Our greatest danger, like Tiger’s, would be “resting on our laurels” or as someone has said, “rusting” on them. To be a real victor in God’s eyes, friends, you don’t need talent or power, brilliance or the right connections, however valuable those things are. You need only to trust in Christ, hold fast to him, and follow wherever he leads until he calls you home, faithful unto death. This is a race to the finish line in which every child of God can win.