May 26, 2008

Revelation 2:18-29: The Letter to Thyatira

Thyatira was located at the intersection of two important trade routes which ran from the east to port cities of Ephesus and Smyrna. It is the modern city of Akhisar in Turkey.

A center of manufacturing and trade (wool and linen weavers, dyers, bakers, bronze smiths, potters, and tanners), Thyatira was famous as source of purple cloth. The purple dye produced from the roots of a plant native to the area. Purple clothing was a mark of royalty and wealth and was highly prized throughout the Roman world.

Thyatira was the home of Lydia (Acts 16:14). Paul encountered Lydia in Philippi, in Macedonia. She was a dealer in purple cloth who traveled to sell her goods. She heard the gospel from Paul and became a Christian.

Thyatira, like Smyrna and Pergamos, was part of the Roman empire. Citizens were expected to worship the emperor, and the city also was the home of worship of the pagan religion of Apollo, a mythological Greek god of the sun, truth, and knowledge.

The trade guilds ruled the economy and the city. A craftsman had to be a member of a guild in order to practice his or her trade. But in that time, a guild was not simply a union like we know today, and that brought trouble to the Christians.

Guilds were tied in with the culture and met regularly. The meetings were all-day or all-night religious ceremonies where members worshipped the pagan god Apollo and the Roman emperor. The event included prayers and worship to these pagan gods, sacrifice of animals to them, and a banquet where sacrificed meat was served. Eating the meat was an act of acknowledgement and worship of the pagan gods and part of the guild member’s religious obligation. Apollo worship also included sexual union with the priestesses from the temple.

Remember from our discussion about the church at Smyrna that the Christians there were poor and persecuted because they would not worship the Roman emperor? That was not the case with the craftspeople in the church at Thyatira. Rather than stand against the pagan worship and immorality, the Christian craftspeople in Thyatira participated in it so they could work, and the church accommodated it. This situation is at the heart of Christ’s letter to the church in our passage today.

“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write, ‘These things says the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet like fine brass: I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first. Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works.

‘Now to you I say, and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine, who have not known the depths of Satan, as they say, I will put on you no other burden. But hold fast what you have till I come. And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations—He shall rule them with a rod of iron; they shall be dashed to pieces like the potter’s vessels’—as I also have received 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.’”

In the salutation, Christ refers to Himself as the “Son of God” as a reminder to these Christians who also participated in worship of pagan gods, that He, (Christ) and He alone, is God. The Savior has “eyes like a flame of fire” (here and 1:14 and 19:12). This is the picture of one with penetrating sight, Who in this letter to the church at Thyatira lets them know He sees into the depths of His people and His church.

“His feet are like fine brass” is a reference to His purity and to the position of perfection and holiness from which He has the right to judge. He has thus reminded the Christians at Thyatira that He (not Apollo or the emperor) is God, that He sees their sin, and that He has the right to judge them.

Christ commends the Christians in the Thyatira church for their works and service. Their works were increasing. Works include witnessing, caring for each other in sickness and times of trouble and mourning, helping the poor, widows, and orphans, and other similar works typical of committed Christians. He also commends their faith and patience. All of these works by Christians are motivated by love. The Christians at Thyatira, despite their shortcomings, apparently met the ideal of 1 Corinthians 1:1-3—their faith, service, and works were an outcome of their love for Christ and for each other. (Also see 1 Corinthians 16:15; Ephesians 4:12; Galatians 6:10; Titus 3:1,8,14).

The term “patience” may be better understood as “steadfastness” or “perseverance,” referring to the constant, steadfast efforts to serve and do good works. As we find in Galatians 5:6; James 2:24,26, and similar biblical admonitions, our faith is demonstrated to others in our works. Works are not an attempt to simply please God and merit His favor, but they are a result of, and motivated by, our trust in the Savior and love for each other, the special measure of faith, love, and caring that is imparted by the Holy Spirit that lives in every authentic Christian.

The letter to Thyatira is not all positive, however. Despite the great measure of faith and love the Christians there showed, verses 20-23 indicate that the church permitted the teaching of false doctrine and thus led the Thyatiran Christians into sin: sexual sin and eating food consecrated to idols.

The church at Thyatira had allowed the clashing values and demands of the culture to pollute it. A church does not just decide one day to accept obviously false doctrine, but in small steps of accommodation over time, it can happen.

You may remember our discussion about Ephesus, a church that was doctrinally on target, but lazy when it came love for God and each other. Thyatira is just the opposite, commended for works, service, love, faith, and steadfastness but weak doctrinally.

The reason apparently is that they accommodated themselves to their culture, embracing cultural practices that were sinful and which denied God as the only extant deity. In order to work, engage in commerce, own property, and otherwise participate in society, one had to be a member in good standing with the Roman rulers and, in the case of almost everyone involved in any craft, maintain good standing in the guild. And in order to stay in good standing, one had to participate in the worship of Apollo, the emperor, eat the meat sacrificed to the pagan gods as a religious act, and participate in the sexual activities with the priestesses in the temple of Apollo. In other words, people were expected as a condition of freedom and full participation in society, to acknowledge Apollo and the emperor as gods and pay homage to them. For the Christian, that meant the freedom to practice the Christian religion as long as he or she also worshipped the pagan religions.

Evidently, the church at Thyatira accommodated itself over time by adjusting its ideas about Christian doctrine to fit it with the culture and requirements of guild membership. There are a couple of prevailing opinions about just what was being taught.

First, one idea is the church came to believe it was permissible to accommodate to the practices of the culture as a practical means of fitting into the community and enjoying the benefits of citizenship. If Christian trades people needed to submit in order to make a living, then that was regarded as a necessary accommodation, and the church doctrine held that and God in His grace would overlook the sin.

The other idea comes from verse 24. It is what I would describe as the idea that we cannot understand wrong unless we practice it ourselves. From what we know about Thyatira, the people first yielded to the temptation to go along with the pressure to fit in with their culture and the practices of the guilds. Then came the doctrinal error that made it acceptable: that practicing sin would actually enable them to better understand it, and thus make them not only fit in with the culture, but also make them better Christians because they would understand the culture. Notice how the Thyatira church stands in contrast with the church at Smyrna, where Christians endured persecution and poverty because they determined to remain faithful and not participate in emperor worship. By doing so, they were persecuted by their neighbors and the Roman government and deprived of earning a living and owning property.

The leading teacher of the doctrinal error in Thyatira was a woman Jesus refers to as “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess.” We learn the story of Jezebel in 1 Kings 18-22. Ray Stedman, a pastor and author in southern California for more than 40 years, describes her this way:

“The Old Testament Jezebel was the daughter of the king of Sidon, a town in Lebanon that is often in the news these days. She was the wife of King Ahab of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and she is particularly noted for having made the worship of the god Baal popular in Israel. Baal was a fertility god, and his worship involved immoral and licentious practices. There were temple prostitutes, both male and female, associated with the worship of Baal. It was Jezebel who spread that degraded worship widely among the ten tribes of Israel until it became one of the popular religions of the day. She herself supported over 800 prophets of Baal, who ate at her table. She was the one who tried to kill Elijah after his famous encounter with 480 of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel when fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice. That mighty man of God had faced with great courage 480 false prophets, but when Jezebel got after him he ran for his life. She was also the one who murdered her neighbor Naboth because her husband wanted his vineyard. She was a ruthless, immoral, seducer of the people, and that is why Jesus selects her name for this dominant woman at Thyatira. According to the prophecy of the Old Testament, Jezebel ended her days by being thrown from her palace window into the courtyard below where the dogs came and ate her body and licked up her blood.”

The church at Thyatira is reprimanded by Jesus for allowing the woman he refers to as Jezebel to teach and thus seduce Christians to follow false doctrine. This leader called herself a prophetess, indicating she claimed to have special knowledge of things others did not know and which were supposedly revealed to her either by inspiration or by dreams and visions.

About 40 years before, Paul had written to Timothy, pastor of the nearby church at Ephesus, to “rightly divide the word of truth” and “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Timothy 2:15, 19). These are principles the church at Thyatira rejected, choosing instead to follow a teacher rather than Scripture. Jesus reprimanded them for not teaching and following true doctrine.

We should not look at the account of the church at Thyatira as mere history. Accommodation to culture and following certain ministry “superstars” take place in thousands of ways.

One lesson to take to heart is that it is always dangerous to regard the teacher as higher than the teaching, an obvious problem in the U.S. church today. Our culture regards as successful the megachurches, for example, not because of doctrinal purity or personal faithfulness, but because of size. Certain “pastors” pursue the American business model of success—growth, wealth, and recognition by the culture, rather than seeing themselves as spiritual shepherds and servant-leaders, as described in the New Testament. Rather than teaching others about the Savior and serving selflessly, they write (or have a writer ghostwrite) books for personal profit, and critical thinkers both in the church and in the secular culture wonder whether the objective is teaching the gospel or accumulating wealth and celebrity. It is not surprising, given this obvious dissonance between talk and walk, that we regularly witness prominent “successful” pastors caught practicing fraud in their ministries or perverse and predatory sexual sin in their secret personal lives. We in the church must take to heart the truth revealed by Paul in his epistles and James in his letter: genuine faith reveals itself in good works and doctrinal purity regardless of the cultural consequences, and false faith reveals itself in sin.

Note in verse 21 that God patiently gave Jezebel time to repent. He is patient with all of us (2 Peter 3:9,15), and His goodness leads us to repentance when we are in sin (Romans 2:4).

But despite His longsuffering, God can and does remove sin from His people when necessary. Verses 22 and 23 are a stern warning. We find in the book of Acts two examples in which God removed by physical death people because of sin: (1) Ananias and Sapphira died for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-5), and (2) Herod was struck down by an angel of the Lord because he accepted worship as a god rather than giving glory to God (Acts 12:20-24).

Significantly, we find in both instances that the church benefited because they were removed. After the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, the church was filled with fear and was of one accord, the apostles performed many signs and wonders, and multitudes of new believers were added to the church (Acts 5:12-14). Upon the death of Herod, Acts 12:24 relates that “the word of God grew and multiplied.” In the same manner, in Revelation 2:23 Jesus indicates that the punishment of Jezebel and “her children” would be so that “all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts.”

In verses 24-28, He addresses those in the church who follow truth, that is, true believers who do not follow false doctrines or tolerate false teachers in the church. He assures them that they will indeed receive the promises of God: power over the nations (i.e., will rule with Him) and “the morning star.” In Revelation 22:16, Christ reveals Himself as “the Bright and Morning Star.” This promise of “the morning star” most likely refers to the Christian experiencing Christ in His fullness in heaven; that is, eventually to be in His presence.

So far, we have learned a number of details from the letters to the churches about God’s will for the church as a whole and individual Christians.

From the letter to Ephesus, we know He praises works, patience, not accommodating sin, recognizing and rejecting false teachers and doctrine, and focusing on “the works you did from the beginning” (love of God and each other, caring for each other, and evangelizing).

From the letter to Smyrna, we read once more His praise for works, that our future eternal life with Him outweighs any worldly or cultural price we may pay, that He allows us to suffer for our faith, and that we have the strength and power to be faithful regardless of trials and suffering.

From the letter to Pergamos, we learn that it is His will that we hold fast to our faith and do not deny Him and that we must turn away from false doctrines and sin.

And today, from the letter to the church at Thyatira, we once more learn that His will is that our works be ever increasing, that we love, serve, and persevere; and that we recognize and reject false doctrine and false teachers.

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