The fourth mark of the church is holiness (Rev. 2:18-29).
At the church of Thyatira, there was a woman whom Jesus refers to as “Jezebel.” The name is aptly chosen, for just as the Jezebel of the Old Testament had done (1 Kings 16:29–34), this woman led God’s people astray. Specifically, she convinced some of the Thyatiran Christians “to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.”
We readily understand Jesus’ condemnation of sexual immorality. Although the Old Testament often uses the language of adultery as a catchword for idolatry (e.g., Hos. 9:1), in the church of Thyatira, the sexual immorality was real. For Christians, the marriage bed alone is undefiled (Heb. 13:4).
But what about the eating of food sacrificed to idols? In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul argues that a Christian may eat such food unless doing so violates another person’s weaker conscience. In 1 Corinthians 10, however, he seems to reverse course, laying down an absolute prohibition: “You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (verse 21). The key to interpreting these two chapters correctly is the context of the eating. Is the food eaten at a pagan temple or a private home (8:10, 10:25–27)? And who else is at the table: a person with a weak conscience or a strong one (8:7, 9, 12–13; 10:28–30)?
At Thyatira, evidently, some Christians ate food sacrificed to idols at a pagan temple or in the context of a pagan feast. Thus, their eating was not a matter of Christian freedom but of religious infidelity. Their sexual immorality also was a matter of religious infidelity, for pagan idolatry typically included temple prostitution and other sexual rituals. No wonder, then, that Jesus refers to the prominent Thyatiran woman as Jezebel, for she influenced Israel to worship foreign gods (1 Kings 16:31–33).
Why would the Thyatiran Christians be tempted by such idolatry? Possibly for reasons of economic survival. According to Robert H. Mounce, “In a city whose economic life was dominated by trade guilds in which pagan religious practices had become the criteria for membership, Christian converts would be faced with the problems of compromising their stand at least enough to allow participation in a common meal dedicated to some pagan deity.”[i]
The antidote to religious compromise is holiness. We usually interpret holiness as a synonym of moral behavior, which it is, at least in a secondary sense. Its primary sense is “set apart,” however. In Leviticus 20:26, for example, God says to Israel: “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” Holiness means, first of all, that we are wholly the Lord’s and owe ultimate allegiance to him alone. Only then—as a consequence of such consecration—does holiness mean moral behavior.
Not all the Thyatirans had compromised themselves. Jesus speaks of their works, love, faith, service, and patient endurance. Such virtues are the fruit of setting ourselves apart for God.
[i] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 86.