A Culture of Constant Improvement
Something that has continually amazed me in our travels to churches over the years is the various strengths and weaknesses of different congregations. No congregation is perfect, and every church has both strengths that are commendable as well as areas that can be improved. Churches in the New Testament era were no different. One of the most fascinating biblical studies, in my estimation, is how Jesus addressed the various congregations in Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3).
One of the congregations I want to focus on in this letter is the church at Thyatira. Most who have a cursory knowledge of these locations will immediately identify the church in Thyatira with Jezebel, an individual who grievously taught a doctrine of compromise. This corrupt teaching facilitated immorality and idolatry among the believers in Thyatira—something Jesus hated. As heinous as this was, Jesus was still able to see good in this congregation and he recognized that not everyone there had been infected with or was participating in that poisonous error.
Jesus actually gave a glowing commendation to this church when he said, “I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first” (Rev 2:19, NKJV). Based on this statement, we understand that many of the believers in this congregation were experiencing increasing growth, maturity, and productivity in spite of Jezebel’s influence. They had a lot going for them, and they were increasing in fruitfulness. Their latter works, Jesus states, were greater than their early works. Consider how this verse (Rev 2:19) reads in three of other translations:
(MSG) I see everything you’re doing for me. Impressive! The love and the faith, the service and persistence. Yes, very impressive! You get better at it every day.
(NLT) “I know all the things you do. I have seen your love, your faith, your service, and your patient endurance. And I can see your constant improvement in all these things.
(NIV) “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.”
Yes, the Thyatiran church had a cancer in it, but it had not metastasized throughout the whole body. Jesus made it clear that if repentance did not occur, he would deal swiftly and severely with those involved (Rev 2:21-23). Fortunately, though, there was still some health in the church, and in a very real sense, some were doing tremendously well. Every church would consider it a great honor for Jesus to commend their constant improvement and increased accomplishments in such vital areas as he commended those in Thyatira.
One of the sad things I often hear while traveling pertains to believers who are not exhibiting the positive trait of the Thyatiran believers. They are not demonstrating constant improvement and are not getting better every day at serving God, even though they have been exposed to very good, healthy biblical teaching. I often hear from pastors concerning key individuals who have served God vigorously and fervently in the past, but are now deciding that it’s alright for them to enter into some kind of “spiritual retirement” when it comes to volunteering and working in the ministry of helps. This trend reminds me a bit about what was happening in another New Testament Church—the Church in Ephesus. Before I expound on that, let me present a simple contrast between the two churches.
The Church in Thyatira: Had a corrupt individual in leadership who was advocating very bad doctrine. However, several in the church were walking in great love and growing in their productivity and good works. They were doing more for God than they had previously.
The Church in Ephesus: Had leadership very dedicated to accurate doctrine, but there had been radical decline in the amount of love being exhibited and the amount of good works being done. They were doing less for God than they had previously.
These two churches had polar opposite strengths and weaknesses!
After commending the Ephesian believers for their tenacious commitment to doctrinal purity, Jesus remarks, “But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first. If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches” (Rev 2:4-5, NLT).
The church in Ephesus had right doctrine, but they had completely fallen down in the area of love and in carrying out the good works that love produces. As a general rule, good doctrine tends to produce good behavior, and as a general rule, bad doctrine tends to produce wrong behavior, but in this case, there was an unusual reversal of the norm.
What we learn from this is that Jesus was pleased to commend churches wherever they were doing well, but he insisted that churches correct what was wrong. He was not willing to tolerate the morally corrupting influence (doctrine) of Jezebel, and he was not willing to tolerate the lack of love and laziness of the Ephesians. He told both of them to repent!
How are you doing?
- If you are rejecting false teaching and holding to strong doctrinal purity, you’re doing well where the Ephesians excelled. Jesus likes that!
- If you are doing more for God than you’ve done in the past, and are exhibiting “constant improvement” in “your love, your faith, your service, and your patient endurance,” then you’re doing well where believers in Thyatira excelled. Jesus likes that!
As a teacher, I’ve always been very focused on having right doctrine, and I believe this is still vitally important. It is a major emphasis of the New Testament! In addition, there is a great need for believers to have more than just a correct set of beliefs to which they give mental assent. Churches today are in need of believers who passionately love Jesus and who are doing the “first works”—working with the same fervency and enthusiasm that they did when they were first saved.
I understand that people may retire from certain jobs or careers, but I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where people get to quit serving Jesus and just sit back, expecting someone else to be responsible for serving God. I even understand that a pastor might step aside from carrying the specific load of the pastoral office, but even so, we are still called to love and serve God even if we don’t stand in a particular office any longer. Consider these passages:
Psalm 92:13-14 (NKJV)
Those who are planted in the house of the LORD
Shall flourish in the courts of our God.
They shall still bear fruit in old age;
They shall be fresh and flourishing,
Deuteronomy 33:25 (NKJV)
As your days, so shall your strength be.
• (NET) may you have lifelong strength.
• (HCSB) May… your strength last as long as you live.
I love what Caleb (when he was 85 years old) said to Joshua.
Joshua 14:10-12 (NET)
“The LORD has preserved my life, just as he promised, these past forty-five years since the LORD spoke these words to Moses, during which Israel traveled through the wilderness. Now look, I am today eighty-five years old. Today I am still as strong as when Moses sent me out. I can fight and go about my daily activities with the same energy I had then. Now, assign me this hill country which the LORD promised me at that time! …assuming the LORD is with me, I will conquer them, as the LORD promised.”
May we be committed to having the best of all that God charges us (and enables us) to have! May we have good, strong, healthy, solid doctrine, and may we be full of fervent love and abounding in good works for Jesus!
If you’d like more information on Thyatria, Ephesus, and the other churches of Asia Minor, you can download Tony’s series on that subject by clicking here.