“According to Your Works” – Revelation 2:18-29

by Roger McCay
16 May 2021
Sermon Passage: Revelation 2:18-29
Link to Audio Version

Life outside of Jesus Christ is but a mimicry of life—a shadow—a vapor. In contrast, the reality of life in Christ is invested with rock-like solidity—a fulness and vitality that has ramifications towards a powerful, glorious, eternal life. As such, faithfulness to Christ is the highest calling of the redeemed, even over our mortal lives, as we are the immortal heirs of God with Christ, our bridegroom.

The implications of this truth are seen in the rebuke that Tertullian, an early church leader, gave to “a believer participating in idolatry because of his business.” As it is told, “The man defended his sin, saying, “After all, I must live.” Tertullian answered, “Must you?”[1]

Evil in our midst threatens the purity of Christ’s bride. Tolerating evil in the church’s midst is to mix lie with truth, debasing the life bought by Christ on the cross, and betraying the marriage union of Jesus and his bride.

The redeemed are justified by faith and saved by grace through faith. United with Christ, exalted into heavenly glories, integrity calls for our works to flow from the state of grace in which we stand—a harmony of sound and color against the darkness and silence of those who have life in their body but are still in the grave.

In v. 18 of our passage today, our gracious bridegroom describes himself as “the Son of God.” He is the Lord, the Word who was in the beginning with God and was God, the incarnate one conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary (John 1 & Luke 1). He is the prophesied Son of God, who is the Son of Man, the Son of David, sitting on the eternal throne of the Kingdom of God (Ps. 2; Dan. 7; 2 Sam. 7). Jesus, in describing himself here as the Son of God, contrasts himself against the local Thyatiran guild deity Apollo Tyrimnaeus, and [likewise] the … emperor [who claimed divinity], both of whom were referred to as sons of the god Zeus,”[2] and both of whom were stamped upon the local coins.[3] Jesus, the eternal, true Son of God, is making a point to his preeminence (Col. 1:15-20). In that vein, he then describes himself, in the manner he revealed himself in Rev. 1:14-15 to John, as having “eyes like a flame of fire,” and “feet … like burnished bronze.”[4] The imagery is vivid. The feet of Jesus are “like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace,” symbolizing his divine embodiment of strength and stability, indicating his indomitable movement and immovable stance, as he tends his lampstands, the churches, with justice and mercy. What is more, as divine Lord, his flaming eyes symbolize his vigorous intensity and clear vision, as he sees the deeper things, beyond all obfuscation, with sovereign insight into all of history. Thus, Jesus is the one “who searches mind and heart, and … will give to each … according to [his or her] works” (v. 23). He is the Judge of all the earth; his judgment is sure and true—his justice untainted.[5] And he is the head of his body, the Church, his bride.[6]

Jesus demands that his bride be pure. “Be holy as I am holy” (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16). For it is an abomination to join the Holy with pollution. Thus against OT Israel (a people the Lord chose unto himself, redeemed from Egypt, covenanted with at Sinai in marriage, and blessed with the promised land), who debased herself with idolatry and immorality generation after generation (but for a few exceptions and always the remnant – Rom. 11:1-6) … against OT Jews, the Lord called them harlot, whore, prostitute—the unfaithful bride of the Holy God (cf. Isa. 1:21; Jer. 3:1-3; Ezek. 16; and Hosea). John continues with this theme in Revelation, as the Jews who rejected Christ had again proved faithless, whoring with the beast, having crucified the bridegroom and continually persecuting Jesus through his redeemed people, among other things. Indeed, the Great Harlot of Rev. 17 is an image of apostate Judaism, whom the Lord divorced in the heavenly court (Rev. 4-5) and upon whom he brought down the sevenfold judgment promised in Lev. 26, revealed as Revelation unfolds through chapters 6-19, albeit “with some interruptions and interludes” (as Kenneth Gentry puts it).[7] And if you’re wondering about the language of God divorcing, this is not a new concept, as you’ll see in Jer. 3:8. Thus the Harlot of apostate Judaism (whom Christ calls “those who say they are Jews but are not;” Jerusalem), is a major character in the theme and flow of Revelation. The Lord was coming in judgment upon her soon, culminating in the utter destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 (Rev. 1:1, 3 & 7, Matt. 24:30). So, in the context of this divorce and judgment, Jesus was adamant to ensure his bride (the church, true Israel, who is new Jerusalem – Rev. 21:2) … he was adamant to ensure his bride of the New Covenant would not follow the path of his former wife of the Old Covenant into adultery—all part of the one Covenant of Grace.

Hence, the letter to the seven churches was sent with the Lord’s warnings, rebukes, and promises, given for the benefit of the whole church of God. Jesus demanded that Ephesus remember their first love—himself. He encouraged the faithfulness of the church in Smyrna. He demanded church discipline upon those in the church of Pergamum who had succumbed to the teachings of Balaam, the teachings of the Nicolaitans, and had begun whoring like the Israelites at Shittam. And in our passage today, Jesus rebukes the church in Thyatira for tolerating Jezebel, who was leading the church into whoredom.

Concerning the letter to Thyatira, Colin Hemer writes, “The longest and most difficult of the seven letters is addressed to the least known, least important and least remarkable of the cities.”[8] Thyatira was located forty miles southeast of Pergamum on the road to Sardis, situated on the Lycus River in a broad vale surrounded by gentle hills. It had historically been a military outpost, from the capital of Pergamum, but it grew into a commercial town known for its trade and industry. Integral to this industry, were the guilds. William Ramsay explains:

More trade-guilds are known in Thyatira than in any other Asian city. The inscriptions, though not specially numerous, mention the following: wool-workers, linen-workers, makers of outer garments, dyers, leather-workers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave-dealers and bronze-smiths.[9]

You may remember from Acts 16:14 that Lydia, the lady so hospitable to Paul in Philippi, was from Thyatira. Her business was consistent with the trade of wool-dying in her hometown, as she was “a dealer in purple cloth.” Ramsay suggests that Lydia “belonged doubtless to one of those guilds: she sold not simply purple cloth but purple garments, and had emigrated to push the trade in Thyatiran manufactures in the Macedonian city.”[10] And, as Lydia was a God-fearer, it may have been that there was been a Jewish presence in Thyatira, if that was where she was exposed to the God of the Jews.

In Thyatira, due to the predominance of the guilds in city life, Christians found themselves in a bind, as their faith prohibited them from participating in not only the regular pagan social and cultural observances, but specifically in certain critical guild activities. The guilds held frequent feasts, which were religious in nature and included feasting and drinking with food sacrificed to their patron deities which led to immoral sexual activities. Furthermore, as Grant Osborne explains, the guild “feasts were the heart of the social (and commercial) life of the city. To refuse to participate meant the loss of both goodwill and business.”[11] The result of this could then “mean social isolation and economic hardship.”[12]

But what if one could be a Christian and also participate in the pagan guild feasts under the cover of grace? Such suffering would become a non-issue. Yet, as the Lord makes clear in our passage today (also Acts 15:28-29 – the Jerusalem Council decree), it was very much an issue. Like in Pergamum, with the false teachings of the Nicolaitans, the church in Thyatira had an infiltrator who explained away their sin, easing their conscience with the compromise of syncretism and antinomianism for the sake of their social life and business—materialistic comfort. In this case, the infiltrator was a “so-called prophetess” who had garnered influence in the church and whom the Lord names Jezebel.

The name Jezebel summons up some strong images, as she was a particularly evil villainess in the OT. Married to King Ahab, she was a Sidonian princess who zealously and forcefully brought the religion of her people (Baal worship) into the Northern Kingdom of Israel. You can read of her in 1 Kings 16 through 2 Kings 9. Among her many crimes against the Lord (called “whorings and sorceries” by Jehu in 2 Kings 9:22), she led the King and Israel into idolatry and the accompanying immorality of Baal worship—making a harlot of God’s people. In a similar way, the false prophetess Jezebel, in the church of Thyatira, was “seducing” some members of the church (v. 20), and thus bringing a stain upon the purity of the Lord’s bride by leading her into harlotry through false teaching and practices (just like Balaam and the Nicolaitans). She was teaching what Jesus calls, “the deep things of Satan,” which, at face value, seems to be in contrast to “the deep things of God,” that Paul speaks to in 1 Cor. 2:9-10. Rather than righteousness, she was teaching evil in a devious way, such as “the view that in order to appreciate fully the grace of God one must first plumb the depths of evil,” as Robert Mounce suggests.[13] Whatever the case, it was an abuse of the grace of God. As a result, the sin of some in the church was threatening to taint the whole church, like leaven (Rom. 6:1-2; & Gal. 5:9).

It was not like the church in Thyatira was some depraved church, either. The Lord commends the church with high praise. Verse 19: “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.” Out of their faith and love for the Lord and others, they diligently served the Lord and others (a working out of two greatest commandments), while patiently enduring the suffering that was so prevalent in the church in those times of emperor Nero. Indeed, over time, they were getting better and better at their faithful works in Christ. Far from a dead church, they were very much alive and faithfully bringing glory to God—a bright shining light of the Lord in dark Thyatira.

But despite their merit, the Lord had one thing against them. He said, in v. 20, “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.” The issue he had with them was their tolerance. It was not that church discipline had not been initiated upon Jezebel, either. She had been called to repent, likely by the elders faithfully practicing the Matt. 18:15-17 protocol, which Pergamum had failed to do.

So, up to that point, the elders had done the right thing, calling her to repent, but she had refused to do so (v. 21). The problem was they had not followed through with the full measure of discipline their authority entailed and so expel her from the church. They were still tolerating her, for some reason. They weren’t manning up and showing some backbone. So, she was still lingering around, having gathered to her quite a few followers into her filth.

So, for the sake of the purity of the church, and due to her unrepentance, Jesus tells them what he is going to do: “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.” The Lord is bringing down the hammer. Jezebel was graciously given a chance to repent. She refused, so he was going to strike her with an illness—turning her bed of adultery into a bed sickness. Those who had figuratively (in idolatry) or literally committed adultery with her, but had not yet shown an unwillingness to repent … they were about to have their world turned upside down with great pain—unless they repented. And Jesus states flat out that he was going to kill those in the church who were unrepentant and had utterly succumbed to her ways, doubtless spreading her lies—Jezebel’s children. It’s not like these were empty threats, either. Think Ananias and Saphira, whom the Lord Jesus struck dead (Acts 5:1-11); also those he made sick or killed, who had taken the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (1 Cor. 11:29-30).

So, where the church failed to expel Jezebel and her works of idolatry and immorality, the Lord was taking action. He would not tolerate their tolerance. And this was something all the churches would see, and therefore know that the Lord is “he who searches mind and heart” and who gives “to each … according to [their] works” (v. 23).

But “to each according to their works” goes both ways—curses and blessings. Like the Lord was going to bring down punishment upon the unrepentant Jezebel and those who were her spiritual children, the Lord promised to lavish blessings upon the faithful, in the church in Thyatira. Verses 24-25:

24 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. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come.

The essential thing here is that the Lord told those in the church (who had not been seduced by falling for Jezebel’s teaching and practices), to continue to repel her advances. Jesus was coming soon to bring judgment on Jezebel and her faction. They would not have to endure Jezebel forever, but in the meanwhile (presumably to give those who had been seduced (v. 22) a chance to repent) … in the meanwhile, Jesus encourages them to stay the course, embracing him and the works for which he had commended them: love, faith, service, and righteous deeds, according to his Word.

And then he gives two wonderous promises to those who conquer, as the faithful bride (vv. 26-28):

26 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. 28 And I will give him the morning star.

Today’s passage contains overt references to the messianic psalm, Psalm 2. Christ sets the tone by identifying himself as the Son of God in v. 18 (Ps. 2:7 – The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” Verse 12: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him”). He then, in Rev. 2:27, speaks to giving to the one who overcomes authority from the Father over the nations and ruling them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces. Christ is essentially quoting from Ps. 2:8-9 here, which says, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth you possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (see also, Rev. 12:5; 19:15; Matt. 28:18).

That’s a lot to unpack in a few minutes. But, the overall thrust we have here, in Rev 2:8-11 combined with Psalm 2, is that the Lord Jesus reigns, and any ruler, authority, or power that rails against him are as nothing against him, a joke (Ps. 2:1-4). He is the Son of God, the promised Messiah, the Son of David, heir to the eternal throne of God, and he has the absolute authority and power to bring judgment and to lavish blessing. Those who choose to rebel against him will suffer his judgment. Those who embrace him in love will be blessed.

But the kicker here is that Jesus, the Son of God, is going to give this authority and rule to the overcomer (the one who conquers and keeps the Lord’s works until the end), even as he himself received that power from the Father. How can that be? What Jesus taps into here is that his bride rules at his side, in union with him.

First, since this is the only one of the seven letters that includes “keeps my works until the end,” it is clearly significant we need to identify “the end.” So, the end of what? Well, in the Olivet Discourse, Jesus’ promise to the disciples was that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13). In this particular section of the Discourse, he is concluding vv. 9-12, describing the persecution and internal troubles the church should expect. Then here, in the letter to Thyatira, Jesus’ words hearken directly back to his message in Matt. 24:9-12, considering their persecution with imperial backing, including their economic and social troubles, plus their dealing with a false prophetess and internal troubles in the church. In short, the end, the telos, both in Matt. 24:13 and Rev. 2:26 speak to the same thing, in line with Matt. 10:22.

The end comes when the tribulations and persecutions of the church are over—something they faced in the immediate sense, and something that loomed into the future for an indefinite time, practically worked out to being “when they died.” Thus, staying faithful, keeping Jesus’ works until the end means staying faithful for as long as it takes—even unto death (2 Tim. 2:12). It means a lifetime of avoiding unholy compromises, like Jezebel would have the church in Thyatira do, and patiently enduring until such endurance is no longer needed, which will come only at Christ’s return after the end of the millennium – Rev. 20:11ff. Thus, this call is for the church of all ages until that end (Rev. 2:29).

So, what about the promise of authority and rule in Rev. 2:26-27? Simply put, for the one who faithfully makes it to the end, he or she will reign with Christ. In a sense, we reign with Christ in our redeemed life now, but this is not what Jesus is referring to here.[14] After the end, if we have faithfully conquered, doing the works of Christ, we also will reign with Christ in heaven, as his bride, in our union with him until the end of the millennium (Rev. 20:4, 6). For the Thyatirans, who conquered, this means they are reigning with Christ now in heaven and have been since they died. As for the details of this reign with Christ after we die, well, it’s probably along the lines of what Paul proclaimed, “Don’t you know you will judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:3). We don’t really have a full picture of exactly what that reign will look like. But I think we can bet our life that it will be wonderful beyond our wildest dreams—the bride of Christ, perfectly pure, reigning with Christ.

And what about the gift of the morning star? Jesus tells us straight up what that is in Rev. 22:16. He is the morning star. He promises his faithful bride himself, the bridegroom.

My friends, look to the promises and embrace Jesus and his works.

Now, in the culture we live in, tolerance is bandied about as some sort of virtue. But tolerance of evil within the church or in our own private lives is not virtue, but evil. Let us not tolerate the tolerance of evil. Tolerating evil can taint you, taint us together, and lead us into sin. Examine yourself to see if you’ve been seduced. If you have, repent whatever sin has unfolded from your seduction. And if you are tolerating sin in your life, you may fool yourself and others. But the one who has the eyes of fire, who searches our hearts and minds, will not be fooled. If you’ve sinned, repent. He forgives. So forgiven, he then gives to you “according to your works,” righteous works, works washed in the blood of Christ and empowered by his Spirit (Isa. 64:6; Phil. 2:13).

So, let us expel the false teachings of the world that would seduce us. Let us not delve into those deeper things of Satan (in whatever form that might take). Rather, let us embrace Jesus and his works. Let us seek to be pure for our Lord, our bridegroom, who gave himself for us, even his own purity, in which we find our justification by grace that we receive through faith. Because the bridegroom is one with the bride, Christians must express fidelity by our works.


[1] Richard D. Phillips, Revelation, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 127, quoting from unpublished notes of James Boice.

[2] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), 259.

[3] Cf. Tom Wright, Revelation for Everyone, For Everyone Bible Study Guides (London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox, 2011), 25.

[4] In Rev. 1:15 and 2:18 the dative singular neutral form of the noun χαλκολίβανον (chalkolibanon) is translated as “brass” in the KJV, but “bronze” in the ESV, NASB, and NIV. Either term is really just a best guess at the alloy to which the Greek term used here actually might be. As it is, “burnished bronze” is close, considering the local context and the similar description Ezek. 1:7 and Dan. 10:6. However in Ezekiel and Daniel the term used in the LXX (Septuagint) is χαλκός (bronze), where Rev. 1:15 and 2:18 it is χαλκολιβάνῳ. Cf. Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 111ff, for a discussion of the term.

[5] Beale, 209, states: “‘His eyes as a flame of fire’ is a metaphor of judgment [cf. Rev. 2:18–23]). Jesus’ constant presence with the churches means that he always knows their spiritual condition, which results either in blessing or judgment.” Also cf. Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 59, who suggests the symbolism speaks to “the penetrating insight of the one who is sovereign, not only over the seven churches but over the entire course of history as well.”

[6] Col. 1:8.

[7] Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Book of Revelation Made Easy (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2019), 52-53.

[8] Hemer, 106.

[9] W. M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia and Their Place in the Plan of the Apocalypse (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1904), 324–325.

[10] Ibid., 325.

[11] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 151–152.

[12] Mounce, 86.

[13] Ibid., 89.

[14] There are two senses to the authority (rule) Christ has given his people—how we reign with Christ. One is as mentioned above, which is what Jesus is specifically talking about in the context of Rev. 2:18-29 (also Rev. 20:4, 6). The other is more of an immediate sense while Christians are on earth enduring faithfully, conquering, doing the works of Christ until the end. Until the end, in this life, Christians (united with Christ in the heavenly realms – Eph. 2:6; Phil 3:20) have authority given to us by Christ. He delegated this authority to us in the great commission in Matt. 28:18-20. That authority is exercised as we go into the nations proclaiming the gospel, pushing back the darkness with the light, gathering the elect of the nations to Christ and his Kingdom, smashing the enemy’s strongholds with each and every new disciple, and then discipling them according to God’s Word (2 Cor. 10:4). It is doing the work of the body of Christ. If anyone asks, “On what authority do you do this?” The answer is we do this on the authority of Christ, who has commanded us, delegating to us the authority to do his works. As an extension of the “make and equip” disciple mandate, as “a Kingdom, priests to God the Father” (Rev. 1:6; 5:10), we faithfully exercise the authority Christ has given to us, as we faithfully do his works of loving service until the end.