The Church at Thyatira
The fourth church to receive one of the Lord’s messages was located in Thyatira (modern Akhisar), a city that archaeologists date back to approximately 3000 BC.
The Asian king Seleucus I used this city as a barrier against the attacks of the Macedonians because it was located in a valley through which the Macedonian armies would have had to pass to invade his kingdom. When the Romans conquered this region in 190 BC, they liked Seleucus’ idea so much that they copied it for themselves and made Thyatira protector of Pergamos, the capital of the local province.
Thyatira’s location was equally good for trade. Historians and archaeologists report that one could buy almost anything there: wool, linen, leather, dyed cloth, pottery, bronze and even slaves. Paul’s first European convert in the book of Acts was a woman named Lydia, who had come from Thyatira and made her living selling a royal, purple fabric (Acts 16:14). This color was probably derived from the root of the madder herb, a plant that once flourished there.
In Thyatira craftsmen was expected to be members of the appropriate trade guilds for their crafts. Each guild also maintained its own religious cult. To be a member of a particular guild, one had to affirm his commitment to that guild’s deity. Those who could not do so suffered ostracism and financial ruin. Perhaps Lydia sold her goods in Philippi, some two hundred and fifty miles away, because as a proselyte of Judaism she could not join Thyatira’s guild of cloth dyers.
Apollo-Tyrimnos was the patron god of the city as well as the supreme god of all the various trade guilds. Being a son of Zeus, he was often called “son of god” and was represented figuratively by rays of light and brass feet. To the church of Thyatira, Christ introduced himself in verse 18 as the Son of God, who hath eyes like unto a flame of fire, and … feet … like fine brass. This description penetrated to the heart of the matter right away, forcing the church to consider who the Lord of their livelihood really is. The choice was simple: either Tyrimnos or Christ.
Except that Thyatira’s population in the first century was roughly 25,000, not much more is known about the city. Even less is known about the church. Some have surmised that Lydia returned to Thyatira after her conversion and help to found the church, but there is no evidence to support this.
Jezebel — the Deceiving Prophetess
However the church was established, the Lord commended it for being unusually rich in good deeds. He said, I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works (v. 19). And not only was the church already rich in these things, it was constantly improving in them. The same verse continues: and the last to be more than the first.
On the other hand, the Lord’s wonderful commendation also functions as a prelude to the longest and most severe criticism found in the seven messages. The church of Thyatira had allowed Jezebel to deceive the servants of God into committing gross violations of God’s law. Verse 20 mentions fornication and idolatry — the same two crimes that the followers of Balaam were teaching in the church at Pergamos (cf. v. 14).
Needless to say, the Jezebel mentioned here was not the wicked queen of the Old Testament (cf. I Kgs. 16:29–II Kgs. 9:37). Rather, the Lord called her by this name to make a comparison. Her ways resembled those of Ahab’s wife, who sought to substitute the worship of Baal for the worship of Jehovah. But who was the woman who similarly agitated the church in the first century?
Some commentators suggest that Jezebel was Lydia, the seller of purple mentioned earlier. Here the assumption is that she, having helped to establish the church, assumed a position of prominence. But if there is no basis for assuming that Lydia returned to Thyatira, there is even less reason to think that she became an enemy of Christ. Other commentators think that Jezebel was not a single individual, but rather a group of false prophetesses. Again, there is no indication in the text that this is so. She is consistently referred to throughout the message to the church at Thyatira with singular nouns and pronouns.
Instead of making unwarranted assumptions about Jezebel’s identity, a safer approach is to look at the text to see if the Lord has given us any clues. And indeed he has. Verse 20 offers two insights. First, it shows that Jezebel was unusually influential — so much so that she was able to convince the servants of God that fornication and idolatry were good deeds. And second, she is called that woman Jezebel. Here the Greek actually uses the pronoun “your” (σοῦ); and the word translated woman (τὴν γυναῖκά), especially when used with a personal pronoun, is better translated as “wife.” The resulting translation, then, would be “Jezebel your wife” (τὴν γυναῖκά σοῦ Ἰεζάβελ). Keeping in mind that these seven messages were addressed to the angels — most likely the pastors — of the seven churches, Jezebel was probably the wife of the local minister. Who more than the pastor’s wife would have had the amount of influence that she had?
Whether this woman taught in a formal sense or just had a domineering personality and an uncontrollable urge to speak out of turn is hard to say. The point is that she was a natural leader, and it was just as natural for men and women to follow her as it was for her to spew out her own ideas.
There is a very serious warning here for men who believe that God has called them to the gospel ministry (or to any church office for that matter). Pastors must have wives whose conduct is as exemplary as their own in every respect. That’s why the apostle Paul not only listed the qualifications for bishop and deacon in I Timothy 3, but also the qualifications for their wives. Their wives, he wrote, must be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things (I Tim. 3:11). The pastor of the church in Thyatira had made a terrible choice for a wife, and it had cost him and the church he served dearly.
But if it is true that the pastor made a bad choice, then the church did even worse. It had chosen a man to be its pastor whose character failed the Biblical test. Obviously he did not rule his own house well (I Tim. 3:4): his wife was not under his control. Few things can destroy churches faster than ungodly wives of ministers. For this reason, churches calling men to the pastoral office must consider not only the man, but also his family. Men with unruly, obnoxious wives or children should not even be considered.
The Message of the False Prophetess
Now, the problem that Jezebel addressed in the church at Thyatira was only too real. It was struggling for its survival. If the men in the church could not provide for their families because they could not join the trade guilds, they would have to find work elsewhere. Of course, we don’t know exactly how Jezebel addressed this, but one possible scenario would go something like this. First, she reminded the craftsmen that idols are nothing to fear. Some are made of wood. Others are stone. Many are just figments of human imagination. In any case, they have no real power. So far, the argument is absolutely right. But instead of reminding the craftsmen to fear God, who is able to cast both body and soul into hell, she convinced them that joining the trade guilds was not that big of a deal, except that it would allow them to practice their trades, provide for their families and remain members of the local church.
Now, assuming that Jezebel’s advice was something like this, why would she have come to the conclusion that idolatry is inconsequential? Basically, her problem was her philosophical or theological starting point. She believed that she could empirically discern the meaning of things without a word from God. Eve had the same problem in the Garden. Genesis 3:6 says that she saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise. Both women believed they could determine reality by simple observation and then judge what ought to be by what is. The assumption here is that man can discover eternal truth without any help from God.
The Bible, on the other hand, gives a very different system of ethics. Ethics are not determined by anything observable — use, purpose, common practice, etc. — but by divine revelation. God spoke to the prophets, and in his speech he specifies what conduct pleases him. The Westminster Confession says:
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary: those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased (I, i).
And, notice its emphasis on revealed ethics in its chapter entitled Of the Law of God:
God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man (XIX, i and ii).
Likewise, Question 91 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What are good works?” The answer, in part, is that good works are those things that “are done according to the law of God,” i.e., according to the law that God has revealed in the pages of Scripture.
Jezebel, by relying on her own power of observation and interpreting her observations according to her own self-chosen axioms, missed the first and second commandments and led the church many in the church into gross wickedness. The idolatry mentioned in verse 20 needs no explanation. Fornication, on the other hand, is a little more difficult. According to verse 14, the followers of Baalam had led the church at Pergamos into fornication, too. In that case, the fornication was probably physical, since Baalam literally used Moabite and Midianite prostitutes to seduce the men of Israel (cf. Num. 25). But at Thyatira the fornication was probably spiritual in nature. Although sexual sin was a prominent part of the Baal worship, God judged the Old Testament Jezebel for turning the heart of her husband, King Ahab, even farther from the God than his father Omri. After she killed Naboth and stole his vineyard, condemned her and her husband with these words: But there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the LORD, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up. And he did very abominably in following idols, according to all things as did the Amorites, whom the LORD cast out before the children of Israel (I Kgs. 21:25–26). Likeiwse, the Jezebel of the church at Thyatira had taught the servants of God to get in bed with pagan idols, making them believe that they were somehow serving God by doing so.
In spite of Jezebel’s great sin, the Lord had given her more than ample opportunity to turn from her evil. Verse 21 says, And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not. The Lord, as Psalm 103:8 reminds us, is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. But Jezebel scorned the Lord’s goodness. The end of verse 21 in the KJV says that she repented not, but the Greek is quite a bit stronger. It says that she did not want to repent (οὐ θέλει μετανοῆσαι). This means that by the time John wrote this letter she had become so hardened in her sin that she could not even consider repentance as a possibility. Such things were out of the question. How could it be otherwise? Verse 24 says that she and her followers had acquainted themselves with the very depths of Satan. She had a master, but her master was not the Lord Jesus Christ. She may have called herself a prophetess, and perhaps many assumed that she spoke the Word of God, but in reality she spoke for the devil.
Jezebel’s punishment was a sickbed (v. 22). Her Old Testament counterpart met with an even uglier death: she was thrown out of a window, trampled by a horse and then eaten by wild dogs (cf. II Kgs. 9:30–37). The Lord often uses illness and death to punish those who willingly violate his law. In Corinth, some church members had become sick and some had died because they had profaned the Lord’s Supper (I Cor. 11:30). Jezebel’s sickbed was either a physical sickness or a divine weakening of her ability to manipulate and deceive. Either way, the Lord’s purpose was to take her out of the picture.
However, Jezebel was not the only one to suffer the Lord’s wrath. According to verse 23, the Lord also promised to kill her children with death (v. 23). The phrase to kill … with death meant that God would destroy them so completely that there was no way they could possibly survive.
So, who really should the church at Thyatira listen to? Tyrimnos, who claims divine sonship, but whose light is complete darkness and whose brass feet are really styrofoam? Or Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, whose very existence is light and who promises complete deliverance for those who put their trust in him?
And the Rest …
According to verse 24, there were a few brave souls in the church at Thyatira (perhaps even a majority) who paid no attention to the wicked counsel of Jezebel. Christ placed no other requirement on them, except that they must keep the faith.
Further, he promised those who remain faithful two things.
First, they will receive power over the nations (v. 26). Psalm 2:8–9, quoted in verse 27, promised this authority to the Messiah. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he announced to his disciples that all authority had already been given to him (Matt. 28:18). Thus, this promise takes us back to Christ’s self-description in verse 18, viz., that he is the Son of God. But his royal authority was not meant for him alone, for through him his saints also reign. Thus, Revelation 1:6 describes believers as kings, and verse 10 of chapter 5 adds that we shall reign on the earth.
The rod of iron by which Christians will reign was an oak club with an iron cap on one end. Shepherds used this to protect their sheep from wild animals. Here, of course, the rod is figurative. It teaches us that Christ has given his people a mighty arsenal to resist all the assaults of Satan in the advancement of his kingdom.
The second promise is in verse 28; those that overcome will receive the morning star. Apparently, the morning star was a first-century figure of speech, the meaning of which is now forgotten. Several suggestions have been made. Based on the fact that Satan is called son of the morning (Isa. 14:12), some have suggested that morning star refers to him. If this is so, then the Lord promises that each Christian will eventually possess authority over Satan himself. Romans 16:20 says, And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. Others note that Daniel 12:3 promises the righteous that they will shine like stars. Here the star symbolizes immortality. The promise is eternal life. But the most likely explanation is that Christ himself is the morning star. In Revelation 22:16 he even calls himself the bright and morning star. The promise of the morning star, then, means that Christ will give himself entirely to his people. Everything that he is and has done for his people will someday be ours. Our salvation will be complete.
What a promise this verse must have been for those whose church was being destroyed by a false prophetess who had encouraged other members to worship and serve false gods!
Now, what does all of this mean for us at Covenant Reformed Church? We have two pastor’s wives, neither of whom is even remotely like the Jezebel of Thyatira. Nor are there any problems with the wives of our elders and deacons.
But these statements do not mean that the message is not for us. Let me suggest a few things we can learn here.
First, it reminds us of the importance of choosing leaders who really live by the gospel. In particular, these men must rule their houses well. If they cannot keep their families in order, they will never maintain order in the house of God.
Second, when individuals attempt to introduce some abomination into the church life, the elders must deal with that person. If he or she refuses to repent and discipline becomes necessary, the congregation must acknowledge that such discipline, to the degree that it is Biblical, is God’s own judgment. It’s not a light matter, and it should not be treated lightly by God’s people.
Third, it teaches us to be circumspect in all our conduct. Deceit, manipulation, trickery, and such things as we find in either Jezebel must be so abhorrent to us that we purge any trace of them in our own lives.
And fourth, we need to remember the goodness of Christ to those who remain faithful. He is the Son of God. He has all power in heaven and on earth. Light and truth are his garments (Ps. 104:2). His brass feet reveal his immutability (Heb. 13:8). With his rod of iron, he protects us from Satan’s servants who seek our destruction. We have nothing to fear from the world, because Christ overcame the world. In short, we find in him everything that we need for our complete salvation.
In verses 25 and 26, he instructs us to hold fast what we have, overcome the evil designs of those who oppose his kingdom, and to keep his works unto the end. May he give us the courage and conviction to do this until the day that he calls us into the bliss of everlasting glory! Amen.