The Corrupt Church at Thyatira

Revelation 2:18-29

This letter is the fourth in a series of seven letters written to churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century AD. In these letters, John gave a personal message from Christ to each church. Each message expressed Christ’s up-close perspective on the spiritual condition of each one. Just as we benefit from other New Testament (NT) letters (e.g., Romans, 1 Peter, 1 John, etc.), we should benefit from these. As we read them, we should evaluate our own spiritual condition today, both as individual believers and as a church.

Some Background on the City of Thyatira

It was a less significant city.

This city was situated inland on a primary roadway that ran from Pergamos, approx. 40 mi. southeast. The city sat on flat terrain between two major river valleys, the Caicus and Hermus. Since it lacked natural fortifications, the city relied on manmade fortifications to defend against intruders and was razed and rebuilt multiple times over the years.

Compared to the other cities of Rev 2-3, Thyatira was smallest in size and least influential. It was not a major religious center as it featured no compelling temples to highly acclaimed gods, the imperial cult (the worship of Caesar) manifested minimal influence here, and the city featured no sizable Jewish population (and therefore no synagogue).

It was a blue-collar city.

Most notably, the city featured a variety of trade guilds that resembled our labor unions today. These groups of people united around their particular trade to support quality products and services, promote industry standards, encourage fair treatment, and provide legal protection when needed. Guilds existed for bronze, baking, clothing, dye, fabric, leather, pottery, slave trade, and wool workers.

Among these trades, the dye and fabric industry was prominent, well-known especially for its purple dye and purple fabric. They manufactured this dye from either madder roots or murex snails (the latter being more colorfast than the former, though both were considered high-quality dye). The widespread demand for this product is reflected by the presence of Lydia, “a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira” in the city Philippi across the Aegean Sea (Acts 16:14). (If you like puns, you could say that Thyatira was both a "blue collar" city and a "blue color" city.)

A Personal Introduction from Christ

Christ described himself to this church as: (1) the “Son of God,” (2) having “eyes like a flame of fire,” and (3) having “feet like fine brass” (Rev 2:18). This cluster of three descriptions together would have seemed quite dramatic and possibly even frightening.

Son of God

This title differs from Christ’s title in his previous exalted appearance to John, in which he was identified as the “Son of Man” (Rev 1:13). Though both titles underscore the deity of Christ, they emphasize something different. “Son of Man” emphasizes the humiliation of Christ in becoming a man – the perfect man who sympathizes with us in our human suffering and weakness. “Son of God” emphasizes the deity of Christ – the divine man who comes with the full authority and power of God. John used this title for Jesus eight times in his gospel but only this once in Revelation (John 1:34, 49; 3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4, 27; 20:31). With this title, Christ hints at a strong and less sympathetic message to come.

Feet of Bright Metal

This description refers to a unique metal alloy used for making cutting edge military weapons. This alloy was especially hard and stunningly shiny. This imagery portrays Christ’s work of purging out immoral, ungodly teaching and influencers from the church and contrasts sharply with the feet of clay in Daniel’s OT vision that portray the breakable, weak nature of the future world nations (Dan 2:33). Here it refers not to the nations, though, but to bad actors and influences within the church.

Eyes of Fire

The eyes of this person were like flames of fire, resembling the man Daniel also saw in a vision (Dan 10:6). They portray the kind of penetrating sight (like laser vision) that strikes terror in adversaries as a military general who sees through everything on the battlefield and cannot be deceived or thwarted in his military campaign. In the church, Christ knows and sees the true, innermost thoughts and spiritual condition of every person in a church (Rev 2:23). This quality assures us that he’ll make no mistakes in his judgment. Imposters will not deceive him nor will genuine believers be mistakenly judged.

A Positive Assessment of the Church’s Spiritual Condition

Before offering a strong, critical review, Christ first provides a positive assessment for this church (Rev 2:19). In his assessment, he recognizes two inner motives in general, love and faith, and their outward expressions of service and patience, respectively.

  • They expressed their love for God and people through acts of selfless service.
  • They exhibited their faith in Christ by enduring their trials patiently.

Remarkably, Christ said that the quantity or quality (or both) of their acts of love and enduring faith had increased over time (“the last are more than the first”). Such a review would encourage the church for sure.

A Negative Assessment of the Church’s Spiritual Condition

Despite giving such a positive initial review, Christ offered some surprisingly severe criticism. Though this criticism is noticeably verbose (with more words than the other messages), it centers on a singular and specific problem – the influence of a lady called Jezebel (Rev 2:20-23).

They tolerated a woman called Jezebel.

Christ calls this lady Jezebel, not necessarily because it was her name but more likely because she resembled the Old Testament (OT) lady with this name. The OT Jezebel was wife to the Israel and queen to the Jewish King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. She herself was no Jew but was a foreign wife, daughter to the pagan king Ethbaal from Phoenicia (1 Kings 16:30-31). Through Jezebel’s influence from within Israel’s royal family, the idolatrous and immoral practices of Baal worship spread throughout the nation.

Like the OT Jezebel, this lady had a similar influence in the church, corrupting it from within. To gain acceptance in the church, she called herself a “prophetess” (Rev 2:20). By making this claim, she seduced (or “deceived”) members of the church to receive her teaching as from God. Like the OT Jezebel, this woman encouraged professing believers to participate in idolatrous and immoral behavior.

Their trade guilds presented a difficult dilemma.

The cultural background of this city helps us understand how this problem would have developed for this church in particular. Though the imperial cult or the worship of major gods of the pantheon gods didn’t dominate this city, another religious influence permeated the city instead – trade guild gods.

Each of the many trade guilds (or workers’ unions) affiliated themselves with a guardian, patron god. Each guild expected its members to participate in periodic festival gatherings conducted to honor and secure the favor of their respective god. These events featured eating food which they claimed was a gift from their deity (thereby “fellowshipping” with and acknowledging that god). After eating and drinking occurred, these events would also feature all sorts of immoral activities.

This backdrop helps us understand the appeal of what this Jezebel woman taught. Followers of Christ should abstain from these festal gatherings but doing so would open them to ridicule or even physical harm. It would also place their financial and vocational success at risk since they would be viewed as disloyal to their guild.

This woman both modeled and taught a syncretistic approach.

She encouraged members in the church to participate in these proceedings instead. Just as the OT Jezebel encouraged the Israelites to participate in Baal worship activities, including immorality, so this NT woman did the same within the church.

“Just go to the parties, eat the food, and go along with the immoral things that happen afterward,” she would reason. “This is what God wants you to do as residents of this city. It’s perfectly fine to do. There’s no reason to risk your livelihood and reputation by staying away.” Can you see how tempting this would have been?

Apparently, she and her followers described her teaching as “knowing the depths of Satan,” so to speak (Rev 3:24). In other words, they believed that by participating in these idolatrous immoral feasts they were infiltrating Satan’s domain and remaining unscathed.

Christ had given her a chance to repent.

Christ had already given this woman a chance to repent of her own immoral behavior and her misleading teachings in the church. Perhaps John himself had given her this opportunity before his banishment to Patmos. Whatever the case, she persisted in her behavior and teaching (Rev 2:21). Christ also extended an opportunity for anyone who followed her teachings to repent as well (Rev 2:22).

Christ warned of serious consequences.

For her and anyone who refused to repent, Christ gave a dire warning. He would throw them (throw them forcefully) into a “sickbed” (Rev 2:22) and into “great tribulation” (Rev 2:23). These consequences are ironic in at least two ways.

First, we know that bed can refer to sensual behavior, but John uses this concept here to refer to the bed for an invalid, a stretch used to carry someone who was incapacitated by a serious illness. What man intends for pleasure results in disease instead. Can you see the play on words? Perhaps this refers to STDs or perhaps to an outright divine plague.

Second, we know that “great tribulation” can refer to the period of extremely intense suffering and turmoil that God will send to the unbelieving world before the millennial kingdom (Matt 24:21; Rev 7:14). Acts 7:11 uses a similar phrase (the same words) to describe the severe distress and suffering that occurred in the world during the worldwide famine of Joseph’s day. This indicates that God would eventually judge this Jezebel woman and her followers as nonbelievers. More ironic, however, is that such intense suffering in a financial and material sense would be the opposite outcome of what participating in these pagan guild festivals was supposed to secure.

We can see a progression of divine discipline here (Rev 2:21-23).

  • First, Christ provides an opportunity to repent from immoral behavior.
  • After time elapses and no repentance occurs, then he sends painful consequences.
  • After further time elapses and no repentance occurs, then he sends the ultimate consequence of death itself.

Christ intends this progression to first provide an opportunity for repentance. Even when a person’s problem includes sexual immorality, Christ desires repentance rather than destruction. Yet if a person – whether an influencer or a follower – refuses to repent during the time Christ allows, then painful consequences and potentially even death (even an unfortunate or violent death) may result.

The death of OT Jezebel is an example as she was cast out the window of a high tower and devoured by dogs (2 Kings 9:30-37). The NT Jezebel and her followers should expect no different if they refuse to repent. The reason for this dramatic outcome is an instructive one because Christ intends to alert all the churches, not just the church at Thyatira, they should reject, not tolerate, the approach and behavior that Jezebel taught. Anyone who follows her ways and will not repent should anticipate the same result (Rev 2:23).

After giving this strong criticism and warning, Christ speaks graciously to those who have not yet embraced the wrong teaching of this woman Jezebel (Rev 2:24-25). He urges them to continue rejecting the pressure to give in to the sinful practices of their local culture. He also assures them that he would give them no more additional challenges, implying that by persisting in love and faith and resisting the influence of Jezebel and her followers they had enough of a burden to carry already.

A Promise of Personal Blessing

The blessing Christ promises to true believers in this message seems to pertain first to our experience in the millennial kingdom, followed by our experience in the future eternal state in the New Earth that follows.

We’ll rule with Christ in the Millennium.

First, anyone who demonstrates the genuineness of his or her faith to the end of life will be assured of having a place of authority in God’s future millennial kingdom. During this one-thousand-year period (as prophesied in Psa 2:9), he will crush the organization and power of the world’s nations, empires, militaries, and rulers as though they were nothing more than a piece of clay pottery thrown onto the ground, breaking into minuscule pieces.

This domination will include the economic power they wield to put pressure on God’s people. It will also include the care, guidance, and protection of a shepherd, knowing that the word rule is a shepherding word with this sense. When Christ rules the world in the millennium and assigns his followers delegated rules, we’ll be involved both in administering his justice and extending his care to the nations of the world.

We’ll live in Christ’s presence in new world for eternity.

Second, those who overcome this world through faith in Christ and will not give way to the influences of teachers like Jezebel, they will receive “the morning star” (Rev 2:28). This appears to be none other than Christ himself, as Christ himself explains at the end of Revelation when he describes for us the future eternal state we have to look forward to (Rev 22:16).

The concept of a “morning star” refers not to any star, but to a star that shines brightly when the darkness of night has passed and the light of morning sets in. In astronomical terms, this often refers to a planet such as Venus or sometimes Mars that appears in the morning sky, shining through the light of the morning sky and standing out in contrast from the nighttime stars.

As we struggle through the spiritual darkness of life in this present world, it’s like living through the nighttime. Yet when Christ’s kingdom comes and his new world begins, we will enjoy the brightness of his full glory forever. His glory will eclipse whatever smaller light we glimpsed of him along the way.

Perhaps the best way to understand what Christ is promising here is not that we will “possess” Christ as a morning star in the future, but that we will get to experience that moment when Christ’s glory appears at the beginning of the eternal state. We will see and experience that moment with our very own eyes, making the struggles of this present life fade away forever.

Key Takeaways

Persevere in faith and morality despite economic, vocational challenges.

God expects all of us to work hard to provide a living, care for our families, meet the needs of our society, and expand our knowledge and dominion over his world. Yet we should refuse to climb the corporate ladder or even retain our job or vocation if doing so requires us to disobey Scripture and abandon our morals. Some careers are off-limits for Christians, while others may have a threshold, beyond which a Christian may be unable to climb without compromising his morals.

Be the best employer or employee you can be in your career and vocation for God’s glory, but when faced with a choice between the two, choose Christ over your career and Christ over your culture. By culture, I mean that beyond just your vocation, refuse to compromise your morals in an attempt to be accepted and culturally “in touch” or relevant with nonbelievers in your community and people group.

Repent from immoral behavior before greater consequences occur.

If you have engaged in morally wrong behavior, then turn away from those choices as soon as possible. Sometimes we reason that since no great consequences occurred from our first infractions, then everything will be okay. Such is not the case. Instead, Christ is being patient instead, giving you an opportunity to repent. If you repent, you will receive his full forgiveness and will be able to persevere in genuine faith. If you refuse to repent, then you will eventually face more severe consequences and may even die.

Learn to accept marginalization now in light of future blessings.

Though loyal followers of Christ face limitations and even persecution within our careers and from the world around us, we should persevere knowing that our prospects are much brighter with Jesus.

There is a one-thousand-year period coming when Christ will be the supreme ruler of the world and he will give us the privileged positions of power and service, governing the nations and meeting their needs on his behalf.

After this period, the nations of the world will rise in rebellion against Christ at the Battle of Gog and Magog, but Christ will conquer them forever and send all who rebelled against him from throughout time into everlasting darkness. Meanwhile, we will witness the creation of a new world as the darkness of the night (world history past) fades away and the morning star of Christ’s eternal glory rises. Whatever marginalization and pressure you face today because of your faith in Christ is okay when we persevere with Christ’s future promises before us.

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