OK, there would be various phrases and sentences in the Bible which are encouraging and uplifting, but are also ominous, even frightening. One prime candidate of such a two-edged sword would be Revelation 2:21: “I have given her time to repent”.
Time to repent – now that is good news. But it is of course a time of limited duration – that is the bad news. The context of this brief word is the letters of Christ to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 2-3). This one is directed to the church in Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29).
I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.
Strong words indeed. So let me look at those six words in a bit more detail. The horrible sin of the woman (and there still is discussion as to whether this was her actual name, or just a reference to the evil woman we know about in the Old Testament, especially in 1 Kings 16-21), was leading the church astray, and she is offered a chance to repent.
That is great grace, but she refuses to repent, so her judgment is pronounced. While the words here are addressed to this one woman, they have universal application. We all need to repent of course, or face the judgment. Let me offer a few comments by others on this rather amazing text.
James Hamilton comments on the message presented here that we today must heed:
By refusing to repent, Jezebel declared that she did not belong to the people of God. Once she made this plain, the church in Thyatira had a responsibility to tell her the truth—she was not right with God. They had a responsibility to protect the flock. They had a responsibility to exclude her from the church. But instead they were tolerating her, and as a result of the church’s failure to act, she was leading the servants of Jesus into sin….
In the same way, when churches fail to exclude the unrepentant, they bear part of the responsibility for the sins provoked by Jezebels in their midst. Jesus holds the fact that the Thyatiran church tolerates Jezebel against them (2:20). Is he holding the fact that we are tolerating someone like Jezebel against our church? If we are tolerating someone like Jezebel, we can be sure that he is holding it against us as a church.
But let me return to the grace being proffered here. Sam Storms note how amazing this grace is, and how it must not be ignored or presumed upon. He says this about the passage:
I’m constantly stunned by the gracious and longsuffering character of our Lord Jesus Christ….
What a stunning display of kindness and mercy, that this woman who so horribly perverted the grace of God and used it as an excuse for idolatry and licentiousness should receive the extended opportunity to turn from her ways and receive the salvation of God! By all counts she should have been immediately cast into eternal darkness. But, then, so should all of us! Praise God for his blessed longsuffering!
But our Lord’s patience has its limits. He will not indulge sin forever. He is no less holy and just than he is good and gracious.
John Stott says similar things in regards to these ominous words:
Jesus Christ does not compel us to surrender, nor forcibly break the stubbornness of our will. . . . If Jezebel would not repent, however, there is still a glimmer of hope for her followers: “those who commit adultery with her will surely be punished, unless they repent of their ways” (verse 22). The door of repentance was still open. There was still time. But the opportunity would not last for ever. One day, probably soon, it would pass. If this final warning was not heeded, judgment would follow. “All churches will know that I am he who searches the hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (verse 23).
This idea of grace being both wonderful yet limited needs to be taken seriously by all of us. Let me feature here two vitally important quotes by R. C. Sproul that I have shared often before. The first comes from his expository commentary on Romans. Here he discusses Rom. 1 (pp. 48-49):
Three times in this section we read about human beings being given up by God. They are given up to their vile passions, the lust of the flesh, and their reprobate minds. When God judges people according to the standard of his righteousness, he is declaring that he will not strive with mankind forever. We hear all the time about God’s infinite grace and mercy. I cringe when I hear it. God’s mercy is infinite insofar as it is mercy bestowed upon us by a Being who is infinite, but when the term infinite is used to describe his mercy rather than his person, I have problems with it because the Bible makes very clear that there is a limit to God’s mercy. There is a limit to his grace, and he is determined not to pour out his mercy on impenitent people forever. There is a time, as the Old Testament repeatedly reports, particularly in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, that God stops being gracious with people, and he gives them over to their sin.
The worst thing that can happen to sinners is to be allowed to go on sinning without any divine restraints. At the end of the New Testament, in the book of Revelation when the description of the last judgment is set forth, God says, ‘He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still’ (Rev. 22:11). God gives people over to what they want. He abandons them to their sinful impulses and removes his restraints, saying in essence, ‘If you want to sin, go ahead and sin.’ This is what theologians call ‘judicial abandonment.’ God, in dispensing his just judgment, abandons the impenitent sinner forever.
The second quote comes from his 1985 (1998) book, The Holiness of God (p. 129):
God’s grace is not infinite. God is infinite, and God is gracious. We experience the grace of an infinite God, but grace is not infinite. God sets limits to his patience and forbearance. He warns us over and over again that someday the ax will fall and His judgment will be poured out.
Since it is our tendency to take grace for granted, my guess is that God found it necessary from time to time to remind Israel that grace must never be assumed. On rare but dramatic occasions He showed the dreadful power of His justice. He killed Nadab and Abihu. He killed Uzzah. He commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites. It is as if He were saying, “Be careful. While you enjoy the benefits of my grace, don’t forget my justice. Don’t forget the gravity of sin. Remember that I am holy.”
Those two quotes alone should cause every single one of us to stand up and take notice. But let me conclude with two more important quotes. The first comes from A. W. Tozer: “Every ransomed man owes his salvation to the fact that during his days of sinning, God kept the door of mercy open.”
The second quote is from the Apostle Peter as found in 2 Peter 3:3-10:
Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.