When Intolerance is Right

A sermon on Revelation 2:12-29 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 3/13/2005

Suppose you are taking a personality test, which instructs you to choose adjectives that describe you. Which of the following would you choose?

Neat. Friendly. Outgoing. Introverted. Quiet. Talkative.

I imagine if we could compile results, we would get mixed results on all of these. For each of these, some of us would choose the adjective, while others would not.

But what about this adjective: “Intolerant.” Would any of you describe yourself as intolerant?

Today, the word “intolerant” has become a “boo” word, a word that stirs up negative emotions. No one wants to be described as intolerant.

There are some good reasons for this. Many terrible abuses in history have resulted from the powerful being intolerant of those from a different religion or a different race. We only have to think of the way Native Americans, Blacks, and Jews have been treated in this country – and, indeed, at various times and places, Poles, Italians, Irish, Japanese, and Mexicans. I support promoting tolerance as a civic virtue.

What about in the church? Should we promote tolerance within the church?

Again, when we look at history, we can see some reason to do so. Indeed, Baptists more than any other Protestant group have been committed to tolerance, in part because Baptists historically have suffered tremendously at the hands of other Christians. For example, in January 1525, Felix Manz rejected the decision by the City Council of Zurich instructing that baptism should be administered to all babies. He then established the first church in modern times free of state control. The authorities arrested him; warning not to preach any more, they released him, but he kept on preaching. Eventually they arrested him again, and on January 5, 1527, they drowned him in the river that flows through Zurich. Manz was the first of more than 4,000 Baptists executed during the Reformation – by both Catholics and their fellow Protestants.

So surely there is a role for tolerance within the church. Indeed, one of our core values is Diversity-Loving. Certainly that means we are tolerant of some differences among us.

So tolerance is good. Intolerance is bad. Right?

In today’s text, Jesus rebukes two churches not for their intolerance, but for their tolerance. That raises the question: When is intolerance right?

We’ll answer that question under four headings:

In conclusion, we’ll apply these thoughts to our present situation.

The Advocate of Intolerance: How is Jesus Pictured?

Jesus describes Himself in verse 12 as the one having the “sharp, two-edged sword.” A literal translation of this phrase is the one having “the sword, the sharp one, the two-edged one.” This is not a decorative sword used only in parades! This is a weapon used to kill.

Then in verse 18 He describes Himself as the one “who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” You do not want to face someone whose eyes are like flames of fire! You cannot even stand in the presence of such a one. And burnished bronze feet are perfect for trampling enemies into the dust.

Jesus is love, and we’ll see that image here. But throughout the book of Revelation we see both the love of Jesus and the terrible might and power of Jesus which He uses against His enemies. Jesus is loving and tender towards His people. But He overwhelms and destroys those who reject Him. Jesus is both the Lamb who was slain and the avenging Lion. May we praise both aspects of His character.

The Objects of Intolerance

The churches in Pergamum and Thyatira have many positive qualities. Pergamum was the first city to erect a temple for emperor worship. Thus, it became a center for the cult of the emperor. This is probably why Jesus calls that city “where Satan’s throne is” in verse 13. There is much opposition to the church in this town.

Yet Jesus says “you hold fast my name.” In this context, that must mean that they are witnessing to the power of Jesus, not fearing persecution. Furthermore, at least one of their number, Antipas, “my faithful witness,” has been put to death. The church in Pergamum is courageous and committed. This is a strong commendation.

Similarly, in verse 19 Jesus says the Thyatirna church has works, love, faith, service, and endurance – and their works are increasing! They are declaring Jesus in word and deed throughout the city.

So both are vibrant churches. They exhibit real faith in tough circumstances. They know Jesus and hold on to Him. I hope Jesus will say the same about Desiring God Community Church.

But Jesus holds something against them. Look at verse 20: “You tolerate that woman Jezebel.” He uses different words in verse 14 concerning Pergamum, but the idea is the same: “You have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam.”

Exactly what does Jesus have against these churches?

Note clearly: The problem is not that some in these churches had wrong beliefs. That happens all the time. Indeed, in our church in California in the mid-eighties, our pastor Ray Stedman used to say, “We love heresy!” Like all good teachers, Ray often made provocative statements to capture attention, and then would explain the statement. That statement certainly got attention! He explained it something like this: “Heretics take doctrine seriously. They are passionate about truth. Heresy gives us the opportunity to take passionate people and teach them, correct them. This often results in strong, passionate, Bible-believing Christians!”

So the problem is not the presence of wrong beliefs, but how the church responds to those wrong beliefs. In Pergamum and Thyatira they did not correct and convert those with wrong beliefs. Instead, they tolerated them and, indeed, allowed them to become influential within the church. So the wrong beliefs of a few, which should have been corrected, began to permeate the entire church.

Why did the leadership of these churches tolerate wrong beliefs? Why didn’t they correct them? Perhaps they valued relationships more than they valued truth. Perhaps their personal loyalty to these friends was greater than their loyalty to Jesus. Perhaps these people holding wrong beliefs were kind, friendly, outgoing people, and it just seemed so harsh to correct them.

Jesus, the One with eyes of fire, sees through all that: These “nice people” are actually Jezebels and Balaams! They may be personally friendly, but they are dangerous to the very life and witness of the church.

Jesus alludes to these two Old Testament characters. Let me remind you of who they were.

You can read the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-25, and then 31:15-16. He was a pagan soothsayer, whom the Moabite king pays to curse the people of Israel. As he rides on his donkey to meet the king, and angel stands in his way. But Balaam is so spiritually blind, that only his donkey sees the angel. Balaam thus beats the donkey, who responds by speaking to him verbally. God then warns Balaam to speak only what He allows. So when he comes to the Moabite king, God speaks through Balaam prophetically, pronouncing blessings rather than curses on Israel.

But Balaam then tries to work against the very prophecy he made. Numbers 25:1-3 tell us that after Balaam did not curse Israelites, Moabite women enticed Israelite men both to sexual immorality and to participate in worshiping their gods through eating of their sacrifices. Numbers 31:16 tells us this was Balaam’s advice.

Thus, those who “hold the teaching of Balaam” are those who entice God’s people to apostasy. They pretend to be part of the covenant community, but in reality they love the world. On the outside, they appear to be believers, but in reality they are enemies of God.

Jezebel was the wife of Ahab, king of Israel. But she was a Phoenician, the daughter of the King of Sidon, not an Israelite. She appears on and off in 1 Kings 16-21, and again in 2 Kings 9. Her husband reigned during the life of Elijah. She supported the priests of Baal, and threatened Elijah with death after he won his contest with those priests on Mt Carmel.

Jezebel pictures a powerful pagan in the inner circle of the covenant community. Now, other non-Israelite women married into Israel and were celebrated rather than condemned: Ruth and Rahab, for example. They too grew up as pagans. But both of them converted, placing their faith in the God of Israel. They thus are celebrated. But Jezebel does not convert! She instead tempts the Israelites away from the true God.

So Jesus calls a woman in Thyatira Jezebel for working from a position of prominence within the church to lead it astray:

Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. Revelation 2:20

Jesus has one final object of intolerance, the Nicolaitans, as mentioned in verse 15. These false teachers are mentioned in the letter to Ephesus also (Revelation 2:6). Many have tried to speculate about what these false teachers believed, but we really have no more information than what appears in these verses. There is a hint in verse 15, however. A literal rendering of this verse reads:

Likewise you also have those who hold in the same way to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

So it seems that the Nicolaitans held a teaching similar to that of Balaam. Perhaps they were teaching that personal morality doesn’t matter, saying with Paul’s imaginary antagonist in Romans 6:1, “Shall we continue in sin so that grace might increase?”

Thus, the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira are strong in many ways, but Jesus rebukes them for tolerating false teaching. He will perfect His church. He is intolerant of such tolerance.

So what does He do?

The Actions of Intolerance

Jesus first calls both churches to repent (verses 16 and 21). What does “repent” mean? There is a twofold meaning: First, admit that you are wrong. We are always tempted to say, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad – what so-and-so did was so much worse!”  We must not downplay or minimize the wrong we do.

Second, repentance means we turn away from the evil; we hate the sin, and take steps to keep us from falling into the same sin again. That’s what the church should be for! That’s one of the roles of a small group, one of the roles of member accountability at this church! We are sinners. We admit it – indeed, you must admit you are a sinner to be a member of this church. We need help. So when we sin, we confess, we ask for help.

Who is called to repent? Surely the false teachers, but also the church for its tolerance! Tolerating overt sin in the church is a sin.

Jesus then threatens punishment if the churches do not repent (verses 16, 22, 23). He says He will “war against them with the sword of my mouth,” and He will throw Jezebel onto a sickbed, He will throw her paramours into great tribulation, and He will strike her children dead. Clearly, Jesus threatens serious punishment. But what does it mean? How do we apply this?

Let’s look at two passages from Paul’s letters that explain these actions of intolerance in more detail. First, consider 1 Corinthians 5, a case of immorality in the church similar to that in Pergamum. A man is living in a sexual relationship with his father’s wife. Either his father is deceased or has divorced this woman. Paul writes (verse 2):

And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

Like many today, the Corinthian church was proud of its tolerance. Paul says, “You have nothing to be proud of! Mourn at the impurity of the church! Kick this man out of the church!”

What is the goal of kicking him out? There are two reasons given in verses 4 to 6:

4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?

The first reasons: “That his spirit may be saved”! The first reason is to alert the sinner to his danger. He must know he is a sinner. You are not showing love to a sinner if you pretend his sin is not sin. That sin will send him to hell – no matter how much of a subjective assurance of salvation he might have. So don’t pretend someone engaged in overt sin is saved. Don’t let someone like that participate in the Lord’s Supper. Don’t let him consider himself part of the church. No. If someone is living in clear violation of God’s law while claiming to be a believer, focus your relationship on bringing that person to repentance.

Just so, in Revelation 2 Jesus calls the church in Pergamum to repent for its tolerance of Jezebel, saying He has already given Jezebel time to repent. Now the time has come to expel her from their midst – for her own good.

But they are to expel her for another reason also. We see this reason in verse 6: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” That is, unchecked sin spreads. The whole church will be infected if nothing is done. The purity of the church is at stake. Paul explains this more in verses 9-13:

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler-- not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES. (1 Corinthians 5:9-13 NAU)

Paul is not advocating an isolationist community. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth!” We must be in the earth, we must mix with the earth in order to be salt. But we must not tolerate evil in the church! There must be a distinction between the church and the world.

So if your neighbor, who is not in your church, is engaging in sin – witness to him, make friends with him, share the gospel with him. Do all you can to reach out to him. But if he claims to be believer while living in obvious sin, don’t do anything that will lead him to believe that you think he is a Christian. Otherwise, you are an accessory to his self-deception. He is a “so-called brother” (verse 11), not a genuine brother. He has no basis for assurance. (For more on the difference between the security of our salvation and our assurance, see my pamphlet, “How do I Know if I am Saved?).

Once again, this is why church membership is important. When someone becomes a member of this church, he is saying, “I need accountability. I need and want others to help me live the Christian life, to rebuke me, correct me, love me, support me. I need others even to expel me if I live a life dishonoring to God, in order that I might come to my senses.”

How does this relate to Pergamum and Thyatira? If we do not call those in our midst to repentance, if we do not deal with their sin, who will deal with it? Conquering King Jesus will come to “war against them with the sword of my mouth.” He will come and “strike her children dead” (verse 23). Discipline within the church protects the one disciplined from such terrible judgment by Christ.

That’s the negative side. We see the positive side in Ephesians 5. This passage is read frequently at weddings, but this morning I want to you consider what it tells us about the relationship between Jesus and the church.

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Ephesians 5:25b-27 

Do you see what Jesus is doing? He loves the church too much to let her stop short of perfection! He himself will present the church to Himself – He perfects her by His Word, so that she has no spots, no wrinkles, no imperfections. She becomes holy and perfect by His nourishment, so that He can truly say, “My delight is in her” (Isaiah 62:4).

That’s why we can’t tolerate overt, unrepented sin in our midst. The church is different from the world. The church is not perfect, but the true church is being perfected by Christ for His great delight. The church is made up of sinners saved by grace, being transformed into the likeness of Jesus. The church is made up of sinners who are forgiven, and need forgiveness every day. But these sinners are repentant. These sinners confess. These sinners hate their sin. These sinners seek help in order to put sin to death. By God’s grace, they become what God intends them to be.

So for the purity of God’s bride and for the good of the sinner, we discipline those engaged in overt sin. We do not tolerate obvious sin in our midst.

Rewards to the Intolerant

Jesus promises intimacy and impact to those who refuse to tolerate sin. Let’s consider intimacy first:

To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.' . . . And I will give him the morning star. Revelation 2:17,28

That’s perfectly clear, isn’t it? Let’s look at each of these somewhat obscure allusions in turn: First of all, hidden manna. Consider what Jesus says in John 6:48-51

I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.

Here Jesus compares Himself to the manna that the Israelites ate in the desert. Indeed, He says He is much better than that manna – since those who ate manna died, and those who feed on Him will never die. So Jesus’ promise to the overcomer is, in essence, Himself. The hidden manna is Jesus.

Next, the white stone with a new name written on it. White stones could be used in this time period like a ticket for admission. If the name was written on it, it was like an airline ticket – no one else could use it. It is non-transferable. But there is more than that. For Jesus says no one else knows this name. The name is between Jesus and each overcomer – an intimate name. Jesus knows you like no one else, and he gives you His own name of endearment. Finally, note that this is a new name. Jesus doesn’t look inside you and see who you are and describe you with a name. He can do that – but He does more. He changes your character into His. So He gives you a new name, consistent with that transformed character.

These verses allude to Isaiah 62:2-4:  

The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. 3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.

Finally, Jesus promises to the overcomers in Thyatira the morning star. In Revelation 22:16 Jesus says, “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star." So, once again, this is a promise that Jesus will give Himself to the one who confesses, who repents, who does not tolerate evil in himself or in the church.

So Jesus purifies His church in order to make her into His pure, spotless bride. The one who does not tolerate evil in the church, the one who seeks forgiveness for himself – this one has intimate union with Jesus.

Jesus also promises impact to the one who overcomes. See verses 26-27:

The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 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.

Here Jesus alludes to Psalm 2. In that psalm, the kings of the earth are rebelling against God. God laughs at them, and gives the nations under them to His Son: Let’s pick this up in the middle of verse 7:

The LORD said to me, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel." 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.

Question: Who will rule the nations with a rod of iron according to the psalm? Jesus! Yet in Revelation 2, the one who overcomes is said to rule. Thus, Jesus invites us to share in his rule.

Second Question: What is the purpose of the breaking dashing to pieces? The purpose is to overcome the opposition of the rulers. The purpose ultimately is to make the nations into the inheritance of Jesus Christ – to make them into His bride! So Jesus invites us to play a part in bringing the nations to Himself, despite the opposition of their culture, their rulers. The promise in Revelation 2:26-27 is not that we will be able to exert despotic authority over other peoples. Rather, the promise is that God will use us to accomplish His purposes – to bring those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation to Himself. We – even in weakness – will overcome. But it takes a pure church to do this!

Intimacy. Impact. That is what is promised to the intolerant church.

Conclusion: What does this mean today?

Is the church today in the US tolerant of sin? Like Pergamum and Thyatira? Jesus rebukes these two churches specifically for sexual sin, idolatry, and false teaching. Let’s consider these.

Sexual sin: Most obviously, many churches today are “open and affirming” of homosexual behavior, despite the clear biblical teaching that sexual behavior outside of marriage between a man and a woman is wrong. Certainly this is an area where Jesus would say, “I have this against you.”

But although tolerance of homosexual sin is a problem in many churches, tolerance of heterosexual sin is an even greater problem. Too many churches turn a blind eye to overt heterosexual sin or use of pornography in their midst – even among church leadership. Jesus would say that we must repent, or He will war against us with the sword of His mouth.

Idol worship: What are the idols in our culture? Money and power are the most obvious ones. And the church itself often lusts after these idols. We fall prey to idol worship whenever individuals in the church who have money or power are not disciplined or reprimanded for their sins. So many pastors are afraid to say anything that might cause their largest contributors to leave.

The goal of the church is not money. The goal of this church, by God’s grace, will never be money. The goal of the church is not power. The goal of the church is not buildings.

The goal of the church is to become the pure, spotless bride of Christ, to have true intimacy with Him. The goal of the church is to become an effective witness to His grace through our words and actions, and thus to bring all the nations to Himself. May we turn from the idols of our day so that we might achieve His goals for us.

False teaching:  Is the church in the US today attracted to false teaching? By all means. There are the pseudo-prophets, those claiming to speak for God with new revelation; the health, wealth, and prosperity teachers, those promising rewards in this life that God promises in eternity; and there are those who put themselves over Scripture – judging what parts of Scripture are from God and what parts are not.

We guard ourselves from false teaching by holding firmly to 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

Jesus tells us to be intolerant of all these sins. Church discipline is intended to root out all of this, for the good of church, for the good of the reputation of Jesus, for the good of the sinner.

May DGCC never be tolerant of unrepented sin in her midst.

But what about you personally? In Revelation 2:23 Jesus says:

And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.

Jesus searches mind and heart. So don’t be a hypocrite. You may fool me. You may fool all others in this church, or another church. But Jesus is the one who searches mind and heart. Don’t leave here thinking, “I’m sure glad my sins aren’t public ones! I’m sure glad my sins aren’t obvious to everyone else.” If that is the case, you may not be subject to church discipline, but you will be subject to the sword of His mouth if you are unrepentant.

So Repent! Turn! Seek His face!

Remember the two pictures of Jesus: Our loving Savior, embracing repentant sinners, and the vengeful King, destroying all opponents.

He will be one or the other for you. It is your choice.

So repent! And hold fast what you have until He comes.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 3/13/05. The story of Felix Manz is available from multiple sources; one is Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language (Word, 1995), p. 249-52. Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) was helpful as usual.

Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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