Monday, July 26, 2021

19. The Revelation: Thyatira, the Church that Tolerated Sin (Revelation 2:18-29)


The letter to the church at Thyatira is the longest of the seven, though addressed to the church in the smallest of the seven cities. It has an important message for the church today: False teaching and sin are not to be allowed, even under the banner of toleration and unity. A church may appear on the surface to have an effective ministry and be growing numerically, but unconfronted immorality and false teaching will bring eventual judgment upon the church.

The Correspondent

"The Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet are like burnished bronze, says this..." (Rev. 2:18b)

The title “Son of God” and the two descriptive phrases drawn from the vision of the risen Christ in Rev. 1:12–17 identify the writer as the Lord Jesus Christ. The phrases chosen here focus on His role as divine Judge.

“Son of God” emphasizes Christ’s deity, stressing that He is of one essence with the Father. This is a significant wording change. In the vision recorded in chapter 1, Christ was described as the Son of Man (Rev. 1:13). The title “Son of Man” views Christ in His ability to sympathize with the needs, trials, and temptations of His church. Here, however, Jesus is identified as “Son of God,” the only time this phrase appears in Revelation. The emphasis is on His deity, because His approach to the church at Thyatira is as divine judge.

As the divine Son of God, Jesus Christ has eyes “like a flame of fire.” His piercing vision sees all. Revelation 19:12 describes Jesus Christ in His second coming glory with eyes that “are a flame of fire.” A church may feel satisfied with itself, have a good reputation in the community, or even with other churches. However, Christ’s eyes see things as they truly are.

The description of His feet as being “like burnished bronze” is similar to Revelation 19:15, where it says Christ “treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.” That Christ’s feet glowed brilliantly “like burnished bronze” depicts His purity and holiness as He tramples out impurity.

This terrifying description of the Lord Jesus must have created shock when this letter was read to the church at Thyatira. It came as a sobering realization that Christ will judge ongoing, unrepented sin.

The Church

"...the church in Thyatira..." (Rev. 2:18a)

As with the churches at Smyrna and Pergamum, the Bible does not record the founding of the church at Thyatira. In Acts 16:14 Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, was converted under Paul’s ministry at Philippi. Verse 15 records that members of her household also came to faith in Christ and were baptized. It is possible that Lydia and her household helped start the church at Thyatira. More likely, the church there was founded as an outreach of Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:10).

The City

"...Thyatira" (Rev. 2:18a)

From Pergamum, northernmost of the seven cities, the Roman road curved east and then southeast to Thyatira, approximately forty miles away. Thyatira was located in a long north-south valley connecting the valleys of the Caicus and Hermus rivers. It was built in relatively flat country. While Pergamum’s high hill provided a natural defense, Thyatira lacked natural fortifications against potential invaders.

Thyatira was founded by one of Alexander the Great’s successors, Seleucus, as a military outpost guarding the north-south road. It later came under the rule of Lysimachus, who ruled Pergamum. Thyatira was the gateway to Pergamum, and the task of the defenders at Thyatira was to delay an attacker headed for Pergamum. Unfortunately, since Thyatira had no natural defenses, the garrison there could not hope to hold out for long. The city was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. Its brief references in ancient literature usually describe its conquest by an invading army.

About 190 B.C., Thyatira was conquered and annexed by the Romans, enjoying Roman peace. The city then became a flourishing commercial center. Its road became important in Roman times, as it connected Pergamum with Laodicea, Smyrna, and the interior regions. It also served as the Roman post road. At the time Revelation was written, Thyatira was just entering its period of greatest prosperity.

Thyatira was also known for its numerous guilds, similar to today’s labor unions. Its main industry was wool and dyed-good production, but inscriptions also mention guilds for linen workers, makers of outer garments, dyers, leather workers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave dealers, and bronze smiths.

Unlike Pergamum or Smyrna, Thyatira was not an important religious center. The primary god worshiped was the Greek sun god, Apollo. Nor does there appear to have been a sizable Jewish population. The pressure faced by the Christians in Thyatira came from the guilds. To hold a job or run a business, it was necessary to be a member of a guild. Each guild had a deity in whose honor feasts were held, including meat sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. Christians faced the dilemma of participating or losing their job. How some in the Thyatira church were handling the situation caused Christ great concern.

The Commendation

"I know your deeds, and your love and faith and service and perseverance, and that your deeds of late are greater than at first." (Rev. 2:19)

Christ first commended the church at Thyatira before voicing His concerns about it. He assured them that He had not forgotten their righteous deeds (Hebrews 6:10), which He divided into four categories.

First, the believers at Thyatira were showing love for God and for one another. In some ways, Thyatira was strong where Ephesus was weak. Thyatira is the first of the seven churches commended for its love.

Second, Christ commended them for their faith. The Greek word for “faith” here is better translated “faithfulness.” The true Christians in Thyatira were dependable, reliable, and consistent (Rev. 2:25).

Out of faith and love grow “service and perseverance.” Those who love will express it through helping others. Those who are faithful will steadfastly persevere in the faith (Matthew 16:24–26; Matt. 24:13).

Not only did the Thyatiran Christians possess these virtues, but their deeds of late were “greater than at first.” Their loving service was becoming more consistent, and their faithful perseverance growing stronger. They were growing in grace and advancing the cause of Christ (2 Peter 1:8). For that behavior they were commended.

The Concern

"But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality. Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds." (Rev. 2:20–23)

All was not well with the church at Thyatira. The problem was not external persecution, but internal compromise (Acts 20:29–30). Christ had noticed serious error, causing Him to warn “I have this against you.” The use of the singular pronoun “you” points this phrase specifically to the leader of the church.

Their sin consisted of two parts. First, they violated the biblical teaching that women were not to be teachers or preachers in the church (1 Timothy 2:12). That led them to tolerate Jezebel, who called herself a prophetess. Second, they allowed her to teach error. As a result, Jesus declares, “she … leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.”

Jezebel was certainly not the woman’s real name, but her actions resembled the infamous wife of King Ahab. Therefore Christ labeled her with the symbolic name Jezebel. The Old Testament Jezebel was an unspeakably vile woman. Through Jezebel’s evil influence, Baal worship became widespread in Israel (1 Kings 16:30–31).

Likewise, the woman in Thyatira called Jezebel succeeded in leading Christ’s bond-servants astray so that they committed acts of immorality and ate things sacrificed to idols. Whatever the specific content of her false teaching, it led the majority of the Thyatiran believers astray from truth and righteousness.

The Bible teaches that true Christians can fall into sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:15–20) and idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:21). To lead other Christians into false doctrine or immoral living is a very serious sin, meriting the most severe punishment (Matthew 18:6–10). In the case of the Old Testament Jezebel, her life ended in a gruesome death (2 Kings 9:30–37).

Graciously the Lord gave the false prophetess at Thyatira time to repent, but she did not want to repent of her immorality. Her blunt and final refusal to repent would lead to a terrible judgment, introduced by the arresting word “behold.” Because Jezebel refused to repent, Christ declared, “I will throw her on a bed of sickness.” The words “of sickness” are not part of the original Greek text but were supplied by the translators. In light of Jezebel’s refusal to repent, it is more likely that the bed refers to death and hell, the ultimate resting place for those who refuse to repent.

Divine judgment was about to fall not only on Jezebel, but also on those who committed adultery with her. The Lord threatened to cast them “into great tribulation.” This is not the tribulation described in Revelation 4–19, but distress or trouble. Since these were the sinning Christians who had believed her lies, the Lord does not threaten to send them to hell as He did the false prophetess. He promised to bring them severe chastening unless they repented of their deeds.

Then Christ declares, “I will kill her children with pestilence.” Jezebel’s children were her spiritual children. The church was about forty years old when John wrote, so her false teaching had been around long enough for a second generation to have arisen. As he did with Ananias and Sapphira, the Lord threatened to kill them with pestilence. It was too late for Jezebel since her heart was hardened in unrepentant sin. Still, Christ mercifully warned her followers to repent while there was still time.

It is not known how many in that church responded to Christ’s warning, but, tragically, the Thyatira church as a whole apparently did not obey it. History records that it fell to the Montanist heresy, a movement led by a false prophet who claimed continuing revelation from God apart from Scripture. The church disappeared by the end of the second century.

Christ then addressed a word of comfort to those true believers in the Thyatira church: “I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.” Christ’s judgment would be based on each person’s deeds. Those who were innocent would not be punished along with the guilty (Matthew 7:16; 16:27; Revelation 22:12). God is the righteous judge “who will render to each person according to his deeds” (Romans 2:6).

Works have always been the basis for divine judgment. That does not mean, however, that salvation is by works (Ephesians 2:8–9; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5). Instead, people’s deeds reveal their spiritual condition. That is what James meant when he said, “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). Upon salvation, Christians are new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

The Command

"But I say to you, the rest who are in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not known the deep things of Satan, as they call them—I place no other burden on you. Nevertheless what you have, hold fast until I come." (Rev. 2:24–25)

Having warned those following false teaching to repent, Christ addressed words of comfort to the rest who were in Thyatira, who did not hold to Jezebel’s teaching. He further defined the true believers as those “who have not known the deep things of Satan,” as they called them. Jezebel and her followers claimed to discover the very depths of Satan’s domain and remain spiritually unharmed. Since the spirit belongs to God, their twisted logic concluded, what does it matter if the body attends idolatrous feasts and engages in sexual immorality? They imagined themselves to be free to explore the satanic sphere and yet come to worship God.

To the true believers who had not experienced the alleged deeper knowledge claimed by these heretics, Christ said, “I place no other burden on you.” Bearing the burden of false teaching and immoral living rampant in their church, along with personally resisting temptation themselves, was burden enough. Finally, Christ encourages them, “what you have, hold fast until I come.” The use of the strong Greek word krateō, meaning “hold fast,” indicates that it would not be easy. The coming of Christ as it related to the Thyatira church was His coming to them in judgment. Yet they were urged to “cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9) until Christ’s return.

The Counsel

"He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father; and I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Rev. 2:26–29)

To the one “who overcomes” and “who keeps Christ’s deeds until the end,” Christ promises two things. First, Christ will give them “authority over the nations, and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces.” That promise, taken from Psalm 2:7–9, is one of participation in the millennial kingdom. Those who remained faithful to Christ despite being beaten and despised in this life will rule with Him in His earthly kingdom. They will exercise authority over the nations, ruling them with a rod of iron (see Revelation 12:5; 19:15). Those nations in the millennial kingdom who rebel against Christ’s rule and threaten His people will be destroyed. Those who rule with Him will help protect His people and promote holiness and righteousness. Christ will delegate authority to them as He also has received authority from His Father (John 5:22, 27).

Christ also promised to give to His faithful followers “the morning star.” Some connect the morning star with such passages as Daniel 12:3 and Matthew 13:43. The promise would be that believers will reflect Christ’s glory. While Christians will reflect Christ’s glory, it is better to see the morning star as Christ Himself, a title He assumes in Revelation 22:16. Christ promised believers Himself in all His fullness (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12).

The concluding words, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” are a charge to follow the message of the letter to the church at Thyatira. Three important truths stand out. First, this letter reveals the seriousness of practicing and tolerating sin, and that God will judge sin in the church. Second, a pattern of obedience marks true Christians. Finally, God’s gracious promise is that, in spite of struggles with sin and error in churches, Christians will experience all the fullness of Christ as they reign with Him in His kingdom. Those churches, like Thyatira, who fail to obey the message will receive divine judgment. Those who do obey its message will receive divine blessing.