18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.
19 “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’[i]
This letter, Revelation of Jesus Christ, is making its way along a horseshoe-shaped circuit of modern-day western Turkey. It began at the bottom left-hand of the horseshoe in Ephesus, progressed up through the next port city of Smyrna, came to the capital city of Pergamum, and now has traveled over the horseshoe bend to the industrial city of Thyatira on its way down the right side of this semicircular road. It was likely the smallest of the seven cities with the smallest congregation of believers. Yet, in God’s typical upside-down fashion, this is the longest of the seven prophecies to the seven churches of Roman Asia.
IN THE CITY
Since there doesn’t seem to be much archeological interest in Thyatira, it’s hard for us to paint a picture of city life in John’s day. What remains of ancient ruins are inscriptions related to numerous manufacturing trade guilds in the area. During the first century A.D., Thyatira was famous for its dyeing facilities and was a center of the purple cloth trade. “Following the overland route from Pergamum to Sardis, travelers would head eastward along the south bank of the Caicus River, turn southward over a low-lying range of hills, and descend into the broad and fertile valley of the Lycus. Their journey of about forty miles would take them … to the city of Thyatira …on the south bank of the Lycus in the long north-south valley…. In 190 B.C. the city …became first part of the kingdom of Pergamum and then part of the Province of [Roman] Asia.”[ii]
In Acts 16:14ff. we meet “a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira,” who also had a house at Philippi. It would appear that Thyatira’s market extended across the Aegean Sea into Macedonia. Since the trade guilds were inseparably intertwined with local religious observances, they posed a special problem for the economic well-being of Christians. The divine guardian of the city was the god Apollo Tyrimnos, who would be conceived of as one of the patrons of the guilds honored in their festivities.[iii]
Among the ancient ruins of the city, inscriptions have been found relating to the guild of dyers. More guilds are known in Thyatira than any other city in the Roman province of Asia. Inscriptions mention the following: wool-workers, linen-workers, makers of outer garments, dyers, leather-workers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave-dealers, and bronze-smiths.[iv] We can imagine it to be a blue-collar town – a manufacturing town different from Smyrna with its huge library and medical center. If Smyrna was a place of philosophy, science, and politics, Thyatira was a factory town full of average working people.
Instead of having their favorite sports teams, the trade unions of Thyatira had their favorite gods and goddesses. Each trade guild had its patron pagan deities and usually met in the temple belonging to their patron god or goddess. Athena/Minerva was the goddess of poetry, wisdom, medicine, strategic warfare, weaving, and crafts. So many of the manufacturing guilds in the empire were particularly attached to Athena. Like the Friday night fish fry down at the local union hall in our day, each guild had its feast days for their patron deities.
The guilds supported the individual within the vast framework of the huge Roman empire, providing a social group and the Roman equivalent of health and funeral insurance (insuring funeral rites and a memorial after death). Christians who refused to worship the patron demon gods and goddesses of the guilds were shunned from the local business community, labeled as atheists, and ultimately, as enemies of the emperor-god Domitian – which made them subject to loss of their property, their freedom, and possibly even their lives.
If you look around this morning, you likely have some idea of the size of the church of Thyatira. It’s safe to say that everyone in the congregation knew everyone else and at least got along well enough to worship together on the Lord’s Day
Now, consider the messenger carrying this great letter from city to city. He knows what Jesus is about to say to Thyatira and to one particular false teacher in the congregation. He knows that once he reads Christ’s words everyone in the entire congregation will know exactly about whom this prophecy of judgment is written. Those who follow her will know what Jesus says about their favorite prophetess. They will hear Jesus threaten them if they refuse to repent. I’m fairly certain the messenger lost a great deal of sleep on his journey between Smyrna and Thyatira. Every preacher who handles rightly God’s Word will come to those passages he knows will identify the “problem people” in the congregation. He knows the experience will be unpleasant because, sometimes, the medicine goes down tasting very bitter.
The man carrying this letter cannot escape the task ahead of him. He must and shall read the prophetic judgment against a beloved member of the congregation of Thyatira. There is no way around it. He must and shall read Christ’s judgment upon the elders for allowing this false teaching, and upon those who follow it. He must and shall read this prophecy regardless of the consequences because Christ WILL reign in the church for whom he has shed his blood. He will dispense his judgment and his blessings.
Christ begins, “The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” [v] This is not meek and passive Jesus like a lamb led to slaughter. This is The One of whom the Father declares in Psalm 2:7-9, “You are my Son; /today I have begotten you. /8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, /and the ends of the earth your possession. /9 You shall break them with a rod of iron /and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” [vi] Regarding his greater Son, David advises, “12 Kiss the Son, /lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, /for his wrath is quickly kindled.”[vii]
The features of Jesus (flaming eyes and bronze feet,1:15) allude to the “furnace” in which Daniel’s three friends were thrown in Dan. 3:24–25, 49, 93; and to the heavenly “Son of man” who had “eyes like flaming torches” and “feet like polished bronze” in Dan. 10:6, 16. Here the added designation “Son of God” confirms that Daniel 3 is in mind since the three friends are delivered by “one like a son of God(s).”[viii] So, Christ is both the deliverer of Daniel 3 and the judge of Psalm 2. He delivers those who are persecuted for refusing to worship kings as gods. And he judges both the self-deified kings and their “prophets.”
Jesus Christ is the One with all authority over heaven and earth. His words come from the very throne of God and they are words of life for those with ears to hear, and words of death for those who are deaf to him. His flaming eyes penetrate every hiding place, every excuse, every conversation we hold with ourselves down deep in our hearts. Nothing escapes him. He says in verse 23, “I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”[ix]
The question for the congregation at Thyatira and for you and I is, “Do we trust this Jesus?” Do we really believe he is as sovereign and powerful and loving as he claims to be? Can he really be trusted to preserve me when I cannot work in the city if I refuse to bow to its demon gods? Is he so sufficient that I can give up corralling my spouse and children through outbursts of anger or emotional distance to ensure I get MY way? Is he truly so sufficient I no longer need to complain about others not doing what I want them to do for my happiness and sense of well-being? Do the promises he makes give me the freedom to glorify and enjoy him in absolutely any situation, or must I add my own functional saviors to rescue me from situations I feel are too tough for the Lord Jesus Christ alone to work out according to his good purposes? In other words: Do I really need to pursue other benefits outside of Christ?
Though Christ will have very strong words of judgment, he begins by praising the faithfulness of the messenger, the angel. He says, “ 19I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.”[x] The Lord is praising their witness to their culture. Whenever the words “love,” “faith,” and “endurance,” especially “endurance and faith,” appear elsewhere in the book they almost always refer to persevering witness to the culture. Furthermore, the phrase “your last works are greater than the first” is an intended contrast with the church in Ephesus, whose “first works” of public witness were greater than their last works of witness (cf. 2:5).[xi]
It’s not simply that faith, hope, and love are present in the church of Thyatira, but those marks of union with Christ were growing and spreading outward. Unlike Ephesus, who was so consumed with protecting their sound theology as Paul warned them to do so many decades before, Thyatiran believers were witnessing about Jesus to their friends and neighbors through their love and service, even as they endured the scorn of the city. This congregation really did work the Two Steps (One: It’s all about Jesus! Two: See step one). And the Lord was pleased with their witness in the city. On the faithful, he pours out his tender passion. But on the unfaithful, he unleashes his passionate wrath.
But there were some in the congregation to whom Messiah Jesus was about to bring open and obvious judgment. The Lord says, in verse 20, “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.”[xii] The thing Jesus has against Thyatira was the very thing he praised Ephesus for NOT having: a high level of tolerance for false teaching. Being tolerant of each other’s faults, personality quirks, and minor doctrinal differences is a GOOD thing. That’s part of the love for which Jesus commends them in verse 19.
But Thyatira’s congregation was tolerant of false teaching – but not SO tolerant that this false prophetess had not been warned (v. 21: I gave her time to repent, but she refuses…). Likely, the elders had admonished her about her teachings but had not yet pulled the trigger and put her out of the church. Jesus gives this false prophetess the symbolic name Jezebel, the name of one of the great villains of Israel’s history. The name Jezebel refers to the wife of Israel’s King Ahab, who was originally a Gentile princess from Sidon. Jezebel urged Ahab to worship the pagan god Baal and the goddess Asherah and to construct a temple and a sacred pole (1 Kings 16:31–33; 21:25; see also 2 Kings 9:30–37). She had numerous clashes with God’s prophets and, in the end, was killed just as the Lord had prophesied against her.
We know from our earlier studies that a prophet is someone who reveals information given directly to them by God. A false prophet is one who claims to speak for God. In this case, a very influential woman is claiming to receive deep things from God relating to how believers can and should interact with the culture of the city. Christ says she is, “teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.”[xiii] The church at Ephesus hated the works of the Nicolaitans (2:6); the church at Pergamum allowed the Nicolaitans to live among them (2:15); the church at Thyatira tolerated the active promotion of this same false teaching within their congregation.[xiv]
This false prophetess was actively prophesying her deep things of God – the message that pretending to worship the Roman demon-gods was permissible, so Christians could do business and avoid conflict with their city. Whenever God’s people have worshipped idols in addition to God he has called this false worship prostitution and fornication. That didn’t necessarily mean they were committing physical sexual acts. Participation in the guild-feasts with their penchant for licentiousness would involve the believer in yet another kind of immorality. Religious infidelity under the figure of harlotry is common in the OT. “Do not rejoice, O Israel … for you have played the harlot against your God” (Hos 9:1, NKJ; cf. Jer 3:6; Ezek 23:19; etc.). The fornication of which Jezebel was not willing to repent was her adulterous alliance with the pagan environment.[xv]
She was downplaying the ordinary means of grace – the church’s word and sacrament ministry. By now, the church had a New Testament lacking only Revelation and 1st John. And Revelation was begin read to them at that very moment. But still, the false prophetess claimed to know the really deep things not found in the ministry of the word and the administration of the sacraments. “If you really want to know the deep things, the meat, then you need to buy my books and attend my conferences,” said Jezebel. “I will tell you how to lay hold of the hidden benefits of Christ. Deeply mature Christians can go to the trade guild feasts because they know they’re not really worshipping false gods down deep in their hearts. It’s just a cultural thing; not a religious thing.”
Not everyone in Thyatira was seduced by her false prophecies. Many in the congregation called them “the deep things of Satan” (2:24) because they recognized how contrary her teaching was to God’s written Word. They understood the theology of the cross: true victory on earth is enduring persecution from the world, the flesh, and the devil and holding fast to Christ alone, whose benefits are real both now and in eternity. Jezebel promised self-acquired benefits of health, wealth, peace, AND Jesus. Jesus promised his cross now and glory to come.
Jezebel promised the new, fresh living word of God direct from the Holy Spirit, not some dead letters and old scriptures. No doubt that was her defense against the admonishments from the church elders. They were relying on things written; but she was relying on her still, small voice from God. How dare those repressive men attempt to correct her words of knowledge? So, she refused to repent of her blending worldly safety and peace and income with the eternal manna of Christ.
Christ’s promise of judgment is as wonderfully ironic and poetic as the words he spoke through his OT prophets. She is prostituting with the people of God, so God will throw her on her sickbed to die. She offered an escape from suffering – health and wealth theology – but Jesus promises her a painful death. She had “made her living lying on her back” and now she will die in the very same symbolic way. Her followers (children; 1 Kgs. 21:17–29; 2 Kgs. 9:30–37; 10:1–11) will be struck dead if they will not turn their ears to hear Jesus. Jezebel’s fate is sealed. But here follower still have time to turn from her health and wealth teaching. Jesus promises to defend his church in such an open and obvious way that “all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (2:23).[xvi]
Notice that the language Jesus uses for this false teacher will be used in chapters 17 and 18 when John sees the vision of the harlot of Babylon who deceives her followers. People “fornicate” (πορνεύω [“fornicate”] and πορνεία [“immorality”] in 18:3, 9, as in 2:20–21) with a harlot figure (17:1–2; 18:3, 8–9); this figure “deceives” them ([“lead astray”] in 18:23 and 2:20;18:3, 11–22). God’s people are commanded not to “participate in her sins” lest they be judged along with her by being put to “death” (θάνατος, 18:4, 8; 2:22–23), for God judges everyone “according to their deeds” (cf. κατὰ τὰ ἔργα ὑμῶν [αὐτῆς] in 18:6; 2:23).[xvii]
This prophecy began with tenderness, broke out into fury, and concludes with the tender command of the Shepherd to his sheep. “24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, …I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come.”[xviii] Isn’t it interesting that the same savior who calls his people to take up their crosses and follow him, to come die with him (Matt. 16:24; Mk. 8:34), also says: “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 18:20).
By what works does Jesus judge his people? Is it by having enough passion or a laundry list of “faithful works” or “working faith” to be weighed out at a final judgment based on faith AND works as some Jezebel’s teach to this very day? NO! The only burden Jesus lays on his people is to hold fast what you have. What do they have? They have faith-union with Messiah Jesus. By trusting into his perfect works and the sacrificial, blood-shedding death of the resurrected and gloriously-ascended Jesus, those believers in Thyatira, and you, and I have ALL the benefits of Christ.
We overcome and judge the nations (gentiles, outsiders) RIGHT NOW as we stand in Christ alone and repent of our idols. The victorious Christian life is not escaping persecution; it is clinging to Christ while recognizing and forsaking our idols. Those who hold fast by trust into Jesus will inherit a share in the Messianic Kingdom of which David sang in Psalm 2 and Jesus claims for himself here. They will watch Messiah’s Kingdom grow as the gospel spreads and share in the joy as the dead are raised to new life. And Christ, the morning star (Num. 24:14-20, Balaam’s messianic prophecy; 22:16) will be theirs forever.
[ii] Mounce, 84.
[iii] Id., 85.
[iv] W.M. Ramsey, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, (Hodder, 1904), pp. 324-35.
[viii] Beale, 259.
[xi] Beale, 260.
[xiv] Kistemaker and Hendriksen, 137.
[xv] Mounce, 87.
[xvii] Beale, 262.