“A Snake in the Grass”
In 1780, Major John André was captured. He was a model British officer with impeccable manners; he just had the misfortune of getting caught doing his duty, spying in league with Benedict Arnold. Several members of George Washington’s staff, including Alexander Hamilton, pleaded that André’s life be spared because of his exceptional character. Washington dismissed the requests as sentimental, pointing out that if André had succeeded in his mission, it might have turned the tide of the war. The staff then supported André’s request that he be shot like an officer rather than hanged as a spy. Washington rejected this request too. In spite of André’s personal attractiveness he was a confirmed spy; he was hung the next day.
There’s a snake in the grass; someone is working for the other side in the church in Thyatira. We’re told that person is attractive, eloquent, and influential. She claims to be a prophetess. But she’s not fooling the one who has eyes like a flame of fire—“The LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).
We’re going to see in our reading that it’s Jesus, the Lord of grace, who gives no quarter. Jesus tells the church in Thyatira to act like George Washington: no explaining away the problem; no giving the benefit of the doubt; simply remove the Satanic influence. Immediately!
Revelation 2:18-29, ESV
“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘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 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. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. 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 what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until 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 have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
Getting the Point
This is the central letter—everything bookends it. So, what’s here is of utmost importance.
We saw that the church was growing in love and faith and service to each other. That was good! But they were also theologically lax, allowing a false teacher to gain prominence and promote a false gospel. Both Jesus’ commendation and chastisement work together to the main point:
Christian works: love, faith, service, endurance, only ever glorify God as they flow from the “true” gospel of Jesus Christ.
1. Love isn’t all you need
In 1967, John Lennon and Paul Mccartney sang: “Love Is All You Need.” Love is important, but you might be surprised that Jesus wouldn’t have sung that song. Why not? Because love without truth is false love; it’s mischaracterized love; it’s jeopardized love; without truth, love is anything but love. “And those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
Consider what the apostle John has said in his epistle:
Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:7–10).
This isn’t saying that true Christians are perfect. It’s saying true Christians have changed hearts—they don’t desire to sin. The verb tense used with “sin” here implies a keep-on-keeping-on practice. A wallowing in sin.
When Michael Jordon first tried out for his high school varsity basketball team he didn’t make the cut. He was embarrassed and angry. And that feeling became his motivation. He remember the list of names that his name wasn’t on and he worked harder. Eventually he got to where everyday after practice he would shoot 100 free throws straight. He practiced as hard as he could, day after day, to get better at doing what he loved.
If you woke up every day and practiced sin like Jordon practiced basketball, you’d be a world class sinner. But it would also reveal that you weren’t born of God, not renewed inwardly, not desirous of Jesus’ character and righteousness.
2. Love understands the goodness of guilt.
True believers sin; they sure they do (Jam 3:2); in fact, John himself said: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). They sin before the sun comes up and the coffee is brewed. But true believers don’t revel in it; they don’t let it reign (Rom 6:12).
Love doesn’t say: “Do as you please, grace covers all.” Do you know why that’s not the message of biblical love? Because love understands the goodness of guilt.
I’m talking about proper guilt. Not guilt someone throws at you that isn’t yours, but that guilt which you truly own because of your own action or attitude. Proper guilt has a good purpose. My friend, Steve Brown, has written:
“Guilt is God’s methodology of bringing us to himself. Just as sickness sends us to a physician, guilt sends us to God—and keeps us there. … It is guilt that builds a fire of love in our hearts. It is guilt that makes us more like Christ. It is that guilt that becomes our greatest blessing. Something happens when we come to God for his grace and mercy—something so radical and so amazing that it can only be described as death to our old selves. It is the overwhelming desire to please the One who has loved us with such amazing and unconditional love” (Steve Brown, Approaching God, 41–42).
Love sees the big picture. Love is concerned with the radical and amazing alteration that comes when sickness sends us running to the savior. Love doesn’t rush in to keep us from guilt; it doesn’t bless unrighteousness; it doesn’t gloss over sin. Love heals … love restores, embracing the contrite heart.
Have you heard of the story of the young girl who complained that her classmate refuse to lend her a computer charger? The girl’s computer was nearly dead, but the classmate insisted that she didn’t need to borrow her charger. So the girl who request the charger was really hurt, she told her mom about the incident and her pain and disappointment over it. She also told her mom how the other kids in class all looked in their bags to see if they had a charger to lend. But the girl didn’t make much of that. The fourth time over as many days that she complained to her mom about the girl who wouldn’t lend her the charger, her mother responded: “You’ve been so busy telling me the story about the girl who didn’t give you the charger, how come we never focus on all of the others that looked all over the place to try and help you out?” She looked at her mom and said, “Yeah, that was pretty nice of everybody to try to help me out. I guess there was more nice in the room than mean.”
We’re so concerned to get exactly what we want that we equate receiving it with love: “If you loved me, you’d give me what I want.” But real love is sometimes tough… it says, “No!” In order to awaken us to the “Yes” that it’s communicating. Love makes us alive. It establishes us, not in the truth of our wants and desires, but in the truth of Jesus, who is for us.
Getting the Vision
I want to go back to the beginning of Jesus’ message to the church. Notice that he described himself as the one “who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (Rev 2:18).
Now, Thyatira was a manufacturing town, so the imagery is connecting with that, but it’s also saying, “I see you; I stand within your midst. I know what’s happening.” And to tell you what Jesus knows, we have to turn to the Old Testament.
Way back 1 Kings there is the “Saga of Jezebel.” Jezebel was a Phoenician princess. She married Ahab, king of Israel’s northern tribes. But Jezebel worshiped the false god Baal, and used her power to lead both Ahab and Israel into Baal worship. She was a snake in the grass. She was a seducer of Israel. She tempted the nation towards spiritual adultery.
The prophet Elijah preached against her, and the practices of Baal worship which included sexual immorality, to food sacrificed to other gods, and even to child sacrifice (Jer 19:5). So, ever since her day, the name “Jezebel” has stood as a symbol for anyone, and particularly a women, who might seduce God’s people into spiritual adultery.
Thyatria is a manufacturing city filled with trade-guilds each of which had a token god. I suspect the Jezebel figure is telling folks that it’s no big deal to participate in the feasts of the trade-guilds, perhaps saying: “It doesn’t matter what you do because you’re covered by love; you don’t need to risk your livelihood or social ostracism. So, do as the Romans do, after all love is all you need.”
Friends, that’s not the deeper teaching of Jesus. That’s the deviousness of Satan. Satan twists the truth like a salted pretzel, then gives it back to you with hot mustard. It looks so good that we gobble it up without question.
When I was in college I had a friend from Malaysia. He told me that his family was upset about his becoming a Christian. They wanted him to bow to the household gods and worship his ancestors. He was having a crisis of faith.
He decide that he would do what his family asked of him and keep Jesus tucked away in his heart. Do you know what eventually happened? It’s the old adage: “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Eventually, Jesus was gone altogether.
Jesus once said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matt 10:34–36).
That’s a hard reality. Moses told Israel before they entered the Promised Land:
“You must break down their pagan altars, smash their sacred pillars, and cut down their Asherah poles. You must worship no other gods, for the Lord, whose very name is Jealous, is a God who is jealous about his relationship with you” (Exod 34:13–14).
There’s a snake in the grass. Enticing. Distracting. Tempting. Blinding.
“But I don’t want to commit social suicide,” Jesus. “I don’t want to lose out on financial opportunities,” Jesus. “I don’t want to become a martyr,” Jesus. “Can’t I just go along to get along,” Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t say, “Sure. I love you anyway.” He says, “No! ‘Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven’ (Matt 10:33). Repent; change your mind so deeply that it changes you from the inside out.”
I admit that that’s not warm and fuzzy. But I remember what C.S. Lewis wrote in the Chronicles of Narnia:
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
The call to repentance runs up against out fallen self that is defensive, stubborn, and belligerent. Yet beneath those feelings, the one born of God senses something more powerful is alive. There’s a current from an inner stream, pulling them towards humility, towards the things of God, towards faith in the good Lion whose eyes are like a flame and whose feet are like bronze.
Jezebel wasn’t caught in the pull of the Spirit; there was neither humility or repentance or faith. So like Major John André she had to be removed before the church fell to the evil one.
At the end of the message, Jesus give a promise: “Hold fast until I come, he says, keep my words, and I will give you an iron rod to rule” (see Rev 2:25–27). An “iron rod” … that’s symbolic speak for spiritual authority, breaking free of the systems and zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, that imprison thoughts and actions.
In the movie, The Devil’s Advocate, the Devil lays out his plan to seduce humanity, saying:
“You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire; you build egos the size of cathedrals; fibre-optically connect the world to every eager impulse; grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green, gold-plated fantasies, until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own God… And it just keeps coming, faster and faster. There’s no chance to think, to prepare … !”
That’s the world system, the stronghold, the current … faster and faster. It’s a powerful current, and it sweeps most away unaware. So, how to you get out of it?
Well, it’s not broken by a special incantation. It’s broken by holding on to the truth of Jesus, living by faith in him. That’s actually how we rule with him spiritually.
But remember how the world treated Jesus. Holding on to him isn’t going to necessarily feel good. In fact, you’ll join him in his suffering. And yet there’s the promises of the “morning star” (Rev 2:28).
The end of Revelation calls Jesus the Morning Star (Rev 22:16), the light shinning in the darkness, which the darkness cannot overcome (John 1:5). He’s the beacon calling us home.
If you hold onto Jesus, you’ll share in his light, which illuminates this dark world.
Before he fell into sin, Satan was called the Morningstar, the attractive one. But he’s now the deceiver, a snake in the grass, a false light. Jesus is the bright morning star.
So we’re told: “The hardship you experience for holding on to me is worth something—don’t forget it Don’t lose your grip!” That’s how he keeps us. And that’s also the central message of this book.
Let the one who has an ear, hear what the Spirit says.