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Fight Valiantly! Intolerable Tolerance

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 3 Apr 2019

As we conclude the first portion of our Lent series on contending for the faith, Jesus tells us not to tolerate heresy and immorality within the church, not just to avoid engaging in it ourselves. Watch the video episode for today on our YouTube channel.

We conclude our brief survey of the New Testament’s teaching on opposing false teaching, with Revelation. Three of the letters from the living Christ to the churches in Revelation 2-3 are of particular relevance.

Like those who stood against Diotrephes, the church in Ephesus is commended for not tolerating evil or false apostles. Jesus says to them, “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false’ (Revelation 2:2).

They are commended for testing doctrine and discerning error. They must still repent and do what they did at first, because the Christian life is one of ongoing repentance and faith. They may have lost their love for one another or for Jesus in internal fights for doctrinal purity; or Jesus may be referring to their losing sight of their external obligation to be witnesses of the truth in a pagan world. All the same, Christ is pleased that they hate the works of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6) who, Greg Beale suggests in his commentary, “taught that some degree of participation in the idolatrous culture of Ephesus was permissible.”

The church at Pergamum is also called upon to repent, though they are holding fast to Jesus’s name in a satanic stronghold. Jesus says, “I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:14-15). If they do not repent, “I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth (Revelation 2:16).

So the tolerance of heresy, while not heresy itself, is something to be repented of. Most of the church probably did not go along with the so-called “teaching of Balaam” involving sexual immorality; but the church as a whole was to be judged for not dealing with this false teaching as it ought to have done. Jesus expected the church to deal with heresy in the way his apostles had taught them. As Beale puts it, “The church had a responsibility to cease tolerating this movement, to repent and to discipline its adherents.”

Finally, the church at Thyatira was also liable to judgment for giving free rein to a group of false prophets who wanted to influence Christians to compromise with various idolatrous aspects of pagan society. Jesus says, “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” (Revelation 2:20). This prominent woman had been given time to repent, which was gracious and patient of the Lord Jesus, but she had refused to comply. Therefore, he said,

“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” (Revelation 2:22-25).

All those who have been caught up in the heresy and immorality of this “Jezebel” will be struck in judgment. So Christians in Thyatira are to flee from that deceptive heresy. The way Jesus deals with such people is intended as an object lesson to the rest of the church, who are to “hold fast” and not give up.

So Revelation 2 teaches us that heresy and immorality will go together, and that they will penetrate into the heart of the churches. Yet Jesus sees all and knows all, and will not let this pass unnoticed. He will not only judge those who take part in such falsehood and spread it, but also calls those who tolerate this without action to repent.

Questions for Reflection
1. What practices in the modern church do you think Jesus might say he hates (see Revelation 2:6)?
2. How can we ensure people understand that following Jesus means a life of constant repentance?
3. Which false teachings and practices are you tempted to tolerate, and why?

Catch up on all the posts so far.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.

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