Lighting Up the Apocalypse 8: Rewarding Works with the Morning Star

Rev 2:18-29; Daniel 7:9-14; Daniel 10:1-9; 2 Kings (4 Kingdoms) 9:30-37

Each of the words to the churches comes with a self-given title by Jesus, and emphasizes one or more of the features of the vision that John has seen just before Jesus speaks. The Thyatiran Church hears from “the Son of God,” who has eyes like a flame of fire, and feet like burnished bronze.  He searches their hearts.  Here is the message:

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 the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her immorality.  Behold, I will throw her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches shall know that I am he who searches mind and heart, 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 upon you any other burden; only hold fast what you have, until I come. He who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, I will give him power over the nations, and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received power 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.’  (Rev 2:18-28)

John’s vision began by picturing one “like the Son of Man,” a reference back to the mighty figure that Daniel saw who, in his vision, vanquishes the godless pagan leaders and receives authority from the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:9-14).  Through John we catch another glimpse of this authoritative one.  He is “the Son of God”—for the Jewish people, another way of speaking about the Messiah, the Christ.  Moreover, as Christians know, He is the Son of GOD—the divine One come to be among us. His eyes and bronze feet convey this godly majesty.  Those who know the visions of Daniel will recognize these details of the eyes and the feet from another of Daniel’s passages— the appearance of the strange figure who commissioned the prophet at the banks of the Tigris River in chapter 10 of that book.  Many church fathers associated this Danielic figure with Christ, come to Daniel in a vision before the incarnation.  Hippolytus, for example, points out that the prophet does not identify this figure of chapter 10 with fiery eyes with the angel Gabriel, but stresses that he is, like a priest, clothed in linen: “he sees the Lord, not yet indeed as perfect man but with the appearance and form of man” (ANF 5:182.)

Certainly, this is how John has understood Daniel’s vision, for he sees the same characteristics in the One whom he identifies as the Son of God. In commenting on the description given in Revelation chapter 1, Andrew of Caesarea emphasizes the fiery eyes, which signify “the illumination of the righteous and the punishment of the sinners,” and the feet which “symbolize…the undivided and unmixed unity of the divinity and humanity” (COMMENTARY ON THE APOCALYPSE 2.18 MTS 1 Sup 1:32.)  We might think also about the experience of St. Paul, who had a vision of the radiant Christ, and responded in great awe.  It is to such amazement that we are called as we hear the words to the church at Thyatira.  The Son of God speaks to us, as He spoke to his prophets and to the early Church. His majestic eyes see our state, and our need; his shining feet touch deeply into our world.

In His message to Thyatira, the divine Speaker acknowledges His Church—their works of love, faith, service and patient endurance, and growing likeness to Christ. It seems that He is speaking not to superficial believers, but to those who are linked firmly to Him in their hearts, grounded upon the truth, and expressing their faith in action for the long haul.  Would that all congregations received such acclaim!  However, it also seems that one of the strengths of the Christians at Thyatira is connected with a weakness— “patient endurance’ frequently comes with a peaceable demeanor that may tolerate things that should be rejected.  And so, as with the church at Pergamum, which also held fast during persecution, the Thyatiran church was too accepting of strange teachings.  Jesus mentions to them “Jezebel,” rather than “Balaam” or the “Nicolaitans,” who were tempting the church at Pergamum, but the sins that He details—accepting immorality and eating food offered to idols—are the same. There is a particular accommodation to the contemporary society of John’s day that was very seductive, it would seem, to some Christian communities.

Of course, as with “Balaam,” “Jezebel” is not the historical name of this prophetess, who appealed to divine authority even as she commended infidelity to the LORD.  She is described as “beguiling” and convincing, which is perhaps a different strategy than the one normally followed by the original Jezebel, who used force and violence to further her cult of Balaam and his Asherah.  Her wicked influence on Ahab and the Israelites, as well as her bloody-minded treatment of Elijah led predictably to her demise, hastened by the hands of her own servants.  At her last stand, though, Jezebel did rely on her queenly beauty, dressing with care in an attempt to win over her son Jehu, who had come to bring her to judgement.  Cast out of the window for the dogs to eat by her men-in-waiting, she becomes fodder for the Schadenfreude of the reader of 2 Kings (9:30-37), who, as with viewers of a Schwartzenegger film, may decide that she got what was coming to her.

But this passage in Revelation reminds us that our merciful God allows for repentance, and that vengeance belongs to Him alone. Jesus explains: “I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her immorality.  Behold, I will throw her on a bed.”  The historical Jezebel was thrown down from the window by her eunuchs; this false prophetess will be thrown down either onto a sickbed, giving her more time to repent, or perhaps even onto a bier, since the LORD knows that she will not repent. His warning is not for her, after all, but for those who follow her, that they might avoid the tribulation that the LORD will bring on them in order to chasten and correct.

We do not know who this woman was, but it is possible that she was Helena, the queen of Adiabene and Edessa, who incestuously married her own brother, and then a second husband, who lived in Jerusalem and converted to Judaism, but who was ritually impure.  One scholar suggests that this queen was a partner with Simon Magus, who would then be the “Balaam” in this scenario of seduction to idolatry and immorality.  (See James David Audline, who makes many dubious decisions in his exegesis, but also this interesting suggestion: )

This is a possibility, but it is far more likely that this prophetess was a famous figure among the Christians, one who, like the so-called “Balaam,” had forged a following for herself, based on a charismatic personality, appeals to the Christians to avoid persecution by accommodation, and false arguments supposedly based on the Scriptures. But trying to decode the tantalizing historical details in this passage lead us away from its intent.  Its purpose is to warn us, as we listen into Jesus’ words to Thyatira, against godless beauty, and to remind us that both physical and spiritual infidelity lead to estrangement from God.   The One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life searches hearts, and will not tolerate in us those things that defile.  His love is too great for that, not like, as C. S. Lewis puts it, a doddering heavenly grandfather who fondly allows “the boys to have their fun,” even though it makes them less than they should be.  God’s intent is for our patient endurance to be coupled with holiness, not directed towards dubious ends.  He will not leave us soiled or unfaithful, but intends to purify all those who are His.

The clarity with which Jesus speaks is a reminder that there are some points at which no compromise can be made.  Both the ancient Israelites and John’s churches were under considerable pressure to accommodate themselves to the status quo of their various ages.  The pressures came both from without, from the surrounding pagan culture, and from within, as God’s own people were tempted by false teaching which promised “deep knowledge”—the “deep things of Satan,” as Jesus ironically describes them.  We should remember this when some, even well-known leaders and academics, use pastoral, religious, or spiritual arguments in order to move us away from those things which have been transmitted to us by revelation and Holy Tradition.  Idol meat may not be a living threat in our day, but immorality and other infidelities do continue to besiege Christians in a kaleidoscope of appearances.  Let us not be deceived by the seeming beauty of such soundbites as “Love is love” or “My body, my choice,” even if some teachers cite the inclusivity of a Lord who ate with sinners, or Paul’s call to radical freedom.  That inclusive Lord also requires repentance, while the apostle spoke as frequently of the sacrificial route to which the powerful are called for the sake of those who are weak as he did of our freedom in Christ. Our calling is to see through such rhetoric, to hold fast, to pray for the repentance of teachers who have gone astray, and not to be moved away from truth.

The Christian way involves the “works,” as Jesus calls them, of love, faith, service, and patient endurance.  It also requires fidelity, and our cooperation with the Holy Spirit in conquering over lies rather than capitulating to them.  Love, faith, and endurance are expressed in obedience and in the steadfast guarding of what we have been given.  This is not a knee-jerk conservatism, but a sober evaluation of the deposit of faith, which is lively in our midst, and brings the Church to fulfillment, joined together in itself, a clear light in the darkness, and always dependent upon the Holy Spirit among us. To those of us who hear what the Spirit is saying, Jesus closes with a general promise: “To the one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, I will give power over the nations, to rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces.”

This promise is remarkable!  The language comes from Psalm 2: 8-9, a promise given by the Almighty to the Messiah:  we are being included in that authority, if we hold fast. Here Jesus repeats what He said to the disciples during His earthly ministry, extending that authority to the whole Church.  Jesus assured His disciples, as He sent them out, that those who received them would be receiving Him, and His Father (Mat 10:40).  Now, the Lord envisages us all having authority over those things that could have enslaved us, and so turning even God’s enemies to true worship. We are to be co-heirs with Christ.  From humble steadfastness, then, comes true power.  If we live by the light that we have been given, in the end, we will receive “the Morning Star,” the Lord Jesus Himself, whom both Jesus and St. Peter promises will dawn on us from on high (2 Peter 1:19).


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