Thyatira was the smallest of the seven cities which John addresses. Even though it was small in size, it did have a vibrant economy. It was known for its wool, bronze, and manufacture of a purple dye which was used in dyeing the garments of the very rich. Lydia, who Paul meets in Philippi in the books of Acts was originally from here and was a seller of this purple fabric. She was wealthy enough to own a house and have servants. To be able to work in these industries, one had to belong to a trade guild, something similar to our modern unions. These trade guilds each had a patron deity to which homage was paid at the meetings. Those who refused to go along could suffer expulsion from the guild. This may have involved attending the office party with its drinking and promiscuity.
The chief god of the city was Apollo Tyrimnaeus, who was pictured holding an ax in his hand. In the book of Revelation, many of the martyrs were recorded as having been beheaded with an axe, rather than a sword. Perhaps there is a connection here. Emperor worship of Caesar as the earthly manifestation of Apollos who was the mythological son of Zeus (god).
The letter to Thyatira is the longest of the seven letters and is the most personal. In particular, one woman is singled out for censure.
Exposition of the Text
The letter to Thyatira begins in the same manner as the others, but there is one significant deviation. Usually the introduction to the church refers back to the vision of Jesus which John saw. But Jesus introduces himself as “the Son of God” whereas the closest match in the vision is that John saw one like “the Son of Man”. It is Jesus who is the Son of God, not Apollos or the Emperor. The eyes like a flame of fire does refer back to that vision and probably refers to the searching gaze of Christ in which nothing remains hidden. The feet of bronze might refer to the bronze industry of Thyatira.
What we have seen is that part of the picture of Christ which John saw is related in some way to the individual churches. These seven churches make up the body of Christ.
The church at Thyatira appears at first glance to be the alter ego of Ephesus. It is commended for its works, its love and its faith and that these virtues were on the increase. They were involved as a church in all kinds of service work, even though the mention of having persevered indicates that they did this sacrificially under adverse circumstances. They had love, at least on the surface. This is compared to Ephesus who is reprimanded for its lack of sacrificial love.
In verse twenty, we come across the strong Greek word for “but”. This idea of replacement means that everything they were doing right was cancelled out by what they were doing wrong. They were allowing a woman to teach her Pagan doctrines in the church. This woman whom they were calling a prophetess is called “Jezebel” by Jesus. A good understanding of the Old Testament is necessary to understanding the book of Revelation as a whole, and this reference in particular. Jezebel was a daughter of a Canaanite king and a priestess of the gods Baal and Asherah, the Phoenician god and goddess of fertility. She married the Israelite King Ahab who was supposed to be the guardian of the worship of Yahweh, the true God. Not only did Ahab tolerate Baal worship with its promiscuous idolatry, he encouraged it and mixed it with the worship of Yahweh. This is the king that Elijah confronted at Mt Carmel. Instead of being struck down dead on the spot like the priests and priestesses of Baal and Asherah, they were given time to repent. Ahab and Jezebel refused to repent, and demonstrated it in the murder of Naboth. For this, they were both cursed to death as well as their children, who were executed by King Jehu.
The story of Ahab and Jezebel reveal what was going on in the church under the surface. The searching gaze of Jesus brings to light that the Church of Thyatira was guilty of mistaking tolerance for love. Bu tolerance is not love. To not tell someone the truth when someone’s eternal destiny is at stake because on does not want to offend someone is not love. They really lacked love as much as the Ephesian church did. At least the Ephesians tested their teachers and excommunicated those who taught heresy. This church did not even do that. Truthfulness and love are mutually dependent on one another. You cannot have one without the other.
There are some texts which address Jezebel as “your wife” rather than woman. If this is the case, and the “angel” of the church is the pastor, then the pastor’s wife was the false teacher. The very one who was entrusted with the purity of worship of the true God was married to someone who was teaching Paganism in the church. This is probably not the original text which just has “the woman, Jezebel”. In this case, the church of Thyatira was married to her. Either way, the church was in pathetic condition.
The doctrine this “prophetess” was bringing seems to be similar to that of the Nicolaitans and the Balaamites. They were mixing the worship of other gods with the worship of God with all of its immorality. Most pagan worship was noted for its orgy of gluttonous eating and drinking as well as sex. For example, one temple in Corinth boasted over 1000 prostitutes. And whereas one might think that this was a concern at the trade guild meetings where Christians were faced with the temptation to compromise in order to keep one’s employment, the sad case here seems to be that they invited these practices into the church itself! No wonder Jesus is displeased to see His temple which is His body so dishonored. It was nothing short of sacrilege.
The congregation was infested with her hard core believers as well as those who were dabbling with it and were being deceived. She had probably made a claim that her teaching was of the “deep things of God”, but Jesus correctly names it for what it is “the deep things of Satan”. Perhaps she held to a position that Paul vehemently denied, that to really know the grace of God, one had to know the depths of sin. However, we don’t know all the details of her teaching. What we do know is sickening to God.
Jesus’ remedy is severe. He has already given a lot of time for them to repent. It is not God’s will that anyone should perish, not even the most callous sinner. But the infection was threatening the whole church with death and needed to be cut out. Apparently, this woman was so entrenched in the power structure of the church that those who were faithful to Jesus were unable to cast her and her followers out. But this would be no hindrance to the Son of God. Jezebel and her followers were used to the bed of love. Instead, Jesus was about to cast them into a bed of sickness. The great affliction would serve as a warning to the deceived to repent of their sin. To those who were hardcore believers, her children, would be put to death like the Old Testament Jezebel’s were.
The purpose of this prophecy of judgment to the church is to let them know this in advance. When it happened, they would be aware that the piercing eyes of Jesus can scan the hearts and minds, not just the outward appearance. He would give them what their works deserved.
There were a few in the church who had remained faithful. They probably mourned for the sin in the church but were powerless to stop it. Jesus is aware of their suffering even as the Bible mentions that the righteous Lot suffered in Sodom the wickedness of the inhabitants. They were already vexed day and night. So Jesus tells them that the burden they are bearing is burden enough. They are instructed to keep on being faithful.
The promise to the overcomer is given before the admonition to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches, which is a reversal of the first three churches. Those who were faithful were in a very weak and vulnerable position. They got no support in the church. And they faced outside pressures as well. Jesus reminds them that they are overcomers and really strong. The Jesus who they have remained faithful to in the most harrowing of times was the one who rules (shepherds) the nations with a scepter of iron. This is a reference to the second Psalm which the church saw as a prophecy of Jesus’ rule. He can make nations like the potter makes a vessel of clay. But He also able to shatter them like a clay pot when struck shatters into pieces. Jesus says He will share his authority with these despised believers. No one is truly weak and sick who belongs to the Lord. No one is strong without Him, despite all appearances to the contrary. Jesus shares this kingly authority which He received from His Father with us. As we are reminded from the beginning of Revelation: “He has made us a kingdom and priests unto his God”.
Commentators are puzzled about the promise of the morning star. The best explanation I have heard is that it is a reference to the prophecy made by Balaam about the coming of the scepter and star in Israel. The fact that Jesus has already referred to Balaam in the message to Pergamum as well as the mention of the iron scepter just mentioned gives support to this. They share in the promise of the Savior.
The message closes with the admonition to listen carefully to the message given by the Holy Spirit to the churches.
When we apply what we have learned from this text to the church today, it is very troubling. We can find the churches who are careful to defend their doctrine like Ephesus. And we can find the churches of the martyrs in many places in the world but not in the US. But we find plenty of examples of the churches of Thyatira, Pergamum, Sardis, and Laodicea all around us. There is a lot of stress of tolerance and far too little on truth. The slogan “doctrine divides but love unites” has become the slogan of far too many churches. To get along, there are many who are willing to jettison all of the doctrine but some fuzzy idea of love and acceptance. They are willing to compromise everything just to be accepted by the world. One can look at what Jesus said to the church at Thyatira to gather what He might say and do with today’s church.
The fact that there is still a church in America today and that a whole lot of them have not yet died but cling to life is not because God is tolerant of their practices. Rather He is providing them time to repent. However, God will eventually close the door of repentance and with it the doors of these compromising churches. Salt that has lost its saltiness is worthless. The answer to the malaise of the church is not changing the worship style and further compromise. Rather it is to remain faithful to the message of the church which it has borne throughout the ages, to bring to the world the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
For those who feel the pain of a church which has lost its way and feel that they are too weak to turn it around, we are encouraged to remain faithful to Jesus regardless. Though we lack political clout to change the situation within the structures of the church itself, we must realize that God is our strength. As the song says:
Let us then be truly faithful;
Trusting, serving every day;
Just one glimpse of Him in glory;
Will all the toils of life repay.
When we all get to heaven;
What a day of rejoicing that will be;
When we all see Jesus;
We will sing and shout the victory.