For the last 3 weeks we have covered Revelation 2 and three of the four letters in chapter 2. We have talked about the letter to the church at Ephesus, the letter to the church at Smyrna, and last week the letter to the church at Pergamum. Today we wrap up chapter two of Revelation with the 4 letter. The letter to the church at Thyatira.
Let’s look at what is the longest letter out of the 7 letters to the 7 churches, which is also to the city that was probably the least important of all the cities and see what we might learn about following Jesus in the midst of our own world.
Revelation 2:18-29 says this, “To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.’ To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations— that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
So let’s first look a little bit at the context for the church at Thyratira and see what we might glean from the city and see if that will shed light on anything that comes out in the letter.
Thyatira, as I said, was probably the least important city of the 7 listed in Revelation 2 and 3. The thing that made it most famous was its trade guilds which specialized in various trades. One of the best known item of commerce, and one that made Thyatira the most money and prestige was the making of purple or indigo dye, which became a kingly color because it was so rare at the time. One of the Biblical characters who was from Thyatira and who was a dealer in linen and especially in purple linen was Lydia who is mentioned in Acts 16:14.
Now these guilds held considerable sway in Thyatira. You see this is more than just some type of Union. These guilds each had a patron god. In fact the patron diety of the bronze trade was Apollo Tyrimnaeus who also happened to appear on local coins together with the “son of God”, who better known to us as the Roman Emperor. These guilds weren’t just about employment, they were also religious or quai-religious. These guilds would hold ceremonies where the industry would be celebrated, they would sacrifice meat to idols, mostly to their patron god, and then eat the meat which had been sacrificed to idols. The powerful trade guilds would have made it very hard or difficult for any Christian to earn a living without belonging to a guild. No guild equals no job. No job equals no source of income to provide for your family. But if the Christians joined the guild, membership meant being involved and attending these guild banquets (more like religious ceremonies) and this meant, as I said before, eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. We’ll return in a bit to this struggle that, no doubt, most if not all of the Christians in Thyatira faced.
So the letter follows the same format as all the others. After the address part of the letter where the letter mentions the church in the various cities, comes the description of the Risen Christ, which also corresponds to a description of the Risen Jesus found in Revelation chapter 1. This description of Jesus to the church at Thratira is found in verse 18 which says, These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” This description of Jesus is also found in 1:14-15. The reference to Jesus being the Son of God may be a statement in direct conflict with the understanding of the day that the son of god was actually the Roman Emperor. This is the only letter to use that designation for Jesus. And so right from the beginning of this letter Jesus is challenging the establishment and letting them know that He and not Caesar is the true Son of God. Jesus, through John, is also speaking directly to the guilds by the description of fire and bronze. In fact Thyatira was well known for it’s smelting of bronze (which obviously you need bronze and fire for smelting).
So following the description of the Risen Jesus we have what the church at Thyatira is to be commended for. What they are to be commended for is found in verse 19, “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.” This shows that there was much to commend the church at Thyatira for. Love- what is probably the most important part of a follower of Jesus life- both for God and for our neighbors. Their deeds, their faith, their serving of their fellow believers and others that God put in their path, and their perseverance all were focused on Jesus and pointing others to him. This was a church progressing, moving forward and growing in these four aspects, as stated that they “are doing more than you did at first.” Unlike the church at Ephesus who lost their first love and was regressing.
Now remember when I mentioned about the powerful guilds, their banquets which were more like religious ceremonies complete with eating meat to their guilds patron deity? And how if you didn’t belong to a guild, it was likely that you didn’t have a job? We come back to that when Jesus through John shares with the church at Thyatira the things that they are to be criticized for, things that are holding them back from following Jesus the way that they should. Verses 20-23 states “Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.” Now we have an OT reference when John refers to this woman in the church as Jezebel. Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab and who seemed to be there cause of her husband’s wickedness. She enticed her husband into worship of Baal, which then in turn led many Israelites into that practice as well. You can read more about Jezebel in 1 Kings 16-22. We aren’t sure if this lady was an official or accepted church leader but we do know that she had a powerful influence within the church through her “prophetic gift”. Knowing the context of Thyatira and the power of the guild, this Jezebel was teaching that freedom meant that they could participate in these guilds, take part in the meals and ceremonies and everything that went with them, and still be following Jesus. And as I mentioned before the things that took place at these guild gatherings are the very things that the church in Thyatira is criticized for, the eating of food sacrificed to idols and to sexual immorality. For you see once one admits that it is all right to attend events in pagan temples or near equivalents, then all the things and practices such as licentious sexual behavior would come with the territory. And so it seems like Jezebel was promoting freedom and that their spiritual freedom could appropriately be expressed both in sexual practices as well as attendance at pagan shrines, cult meals and more ambiguous fellowship meals of the trade guilds.
And while the context is different for us. We don’t have trade guilds that hold religious or quai-religious ceremonies and eat meat sacrificed to idols. But we face the same question that the believers in Thyatira faced. The question that we all need to wrestle with and struggle with is this, “How far should I accept and adapt to contemporary standards and practices.” Or put in biblical terms how can I be in the world but not of the world? You see the church should never and can never deny Christ, yet at the same time we should not deny our membership within society. The mission of Jesus is not served if we as followers of Jesus appear to be old fashioned people who are always trying to retreat from the real world and not engaging the world.
Now Jesus calls the church at Thyatira (and by definition I believe also to us) to continue holding on until the day of his return. To remain faithful to Jesus in the midst of the culture in which they found themselves in (and in the midst of the culture where we find ourselves in). That no matter the struggles that the church was going through and the question of how to engage the culture without succumbing to the culture, that this,more than likely, small band of followers of Jesus were to hold on, to grasp tightly to the hand of Jesus, and to not let go until the end.
Let me say one word more and close out the message before we talk about application together by quoting, as I have done many times before, the theologian and writer NT Wright. He has this to say about the ending of this text and gives us a clue to the vocation that all followers of Jesus have, whether they are in Asia Minor in the 1st century AD or they are in Lancaster, PA in the 21st century. He says this, “Jesus promises to give them the morning star. Since later in the book (22:16) it is Jesus himself who is the ‘morning star’ we probably have here another hint of the level of intimacy which he offers to his people. He will share his very identity with them, as we have just seen him do with his royal authority. But the ‘morning star’ most likely the planet Venus at it’s pre-dawn brightest, is a sign of the special vocation of Christians, not least those “holding on’ when others around them seem to be compromising, under pressure, with local pagan practices. Christian witness is meant to be a sign of the dawning of the day, the day in which love, faith, service, and patience will have their fulfillment, in which idolatry and immortality will be seen as the snares and delusions they really are, and in which Jesus the Messiah will establish his glorious reign over the whole world.”
So what does it look like for you and I today to live out the message that Jesus, through John is calling us to live? To hold on to Jesus? To live a life of love, faith, service, and patience? And what does it look like for you and I to live counter cultural lives, not in the “amish way” so to speak but to live a life that we as followers of Jesus are in the world but not of it? Let’s spend some time wrestling with these questions together.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, applications, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture text and/or message?
2. Share some modern day struggles related to being in the world but not of the world. How can we best live a counter-cultural life while at the same time not leaving the culture? And what does a counter-cultural life that doesn’t leave culture look like?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?