To the Church at Thyatira
January 23, 2022

To the Church at Thyatira

Passage: Revelation 2:18-29
Service Type:

To the Church in Thyatira
Revelation 2:18-29
by William Klock


Revelation is about tribulation, about kingdom, and about perseverance.  Jesus calls us to single-minded commitment, but that kind of commitment often puts his people at odds with the world and the temptation is to compromise.  Brothers and Sisters, we can’t persevere in faith if we’re compromising.


I was thinking this week of a man who came by the church years ago.  Jack and I were sitting upstairs in my study when he came in.  He started the conversation by handing me a crack pipe and bottle full of crack and then asking me to get rid of them for him.  He was down from a lumber camp on the north end of the Island and had been on a bender the night before.  He wanted a place to sleep it off.  He stuck around all day, sleeping and talking.  He told me he was a Christians—or, he said, at least he was supposed to be one.  But he’d been working for years in the logging camps and they were full of drugs and porn.  He knew it was just a matter of walking away, but the money was good.  But he’d woken up that morning and knew he had to get out.  He was headed back to his wife in Nanaimo and was already lining up a job that would keep him at home, even though the money wasn’t as good.  He said he just couldn’t be a Christian and live and work in that kind of environment.  He was out.  He didn’t want to compromise anymore.  I’ve heard similar stories over the years, whether from the logging camps up-Island or the oilfields in northeastern BC and Alberta.


Aometimes it’s more than just negative influences.  Some jobs just aren’t possible for faithful Christians to perform.  There was a man in our church in Portland who came to me shortly after he started attending and said, “Father Bill, I need to ask you not to publish my name on anything to do with the church.  I used to work as high-level drug distributor for the Mafia.  I quit when I became a Christian, but there are people who want me dead.  I just want to let you know that if they ever connected me with this church, they wouldn’t have any qualms about barging into a service and dragging me out to kill me.”  (When I was ordained I never expected a conversation like that!)  But it’s not just illegal jobs.  Another friend from our church in Portland managed the mortgage division of First Interstate Bank.  When he became a Christian and began reading the Bible he was convicted.  It wasn’t just that he was daily helping people get into debt up to their eyeballs—something that doesn’t square with the Bible—but he also knew that the whole fractional reserve banking system was little more than legal fraud.  As a Christian he couldn’t be part of it anymore.  He quit.  And he eventually wrote a book applying the Bible’s teaching on debt and money to help people steer clear of and get out of debt.


In many ways these sorts of situations are present-day manifestations of a problem faced by Christians in Thyatira, the fourth city that Jesus addresses in Revelation.  It wasn’t by any means a unique problem to the people in that city, but it does seem that the pressure there was greater than it may have been in other places.


So Thyatira.  Some people think that the order in which John addresses these seven churches follows on old postal or courier route.  We started at Ephesus and moved up the coast to the north, passing through Smyrna to Pergamum.  From there we now travel inland about 50 kilometres to Thyatira in the region of Lydia and on the Lycus River plain.  It was not nearly so grand and glorious a city as the three to which John has already written.  By all accounts, Thyatira was known for its trade guilds and, especially, for the production of copper and bronze—which probably has something to do with how Jesus addresses himself to this church.  In order to work in a trade, you had to belong to the appropriate guild.  The problem was that there were religious aspects to membership in these guilds.  Pagan religion permeated everything in Greece and Rome and that meant that guild meetings and membership were usually tied to the cults of the gods who oversaw and prospered their work and business.  Meetings were often held in temples.  And this brings us back to the two specific problems we’ve seen in the last two churches: eating meat offered to idols and sexual immorality.  If you worked in a craft or trade and you were a Christian, you were faced with a choice: either you were faithful to Jesus and refused to compromise or you lost your livelihood and might not be able to feed your family.  History records that many of the early Christians were poor.  We read in the book of Acts about they ways they shared with and cared for each other.  This is why.


The major local deity of Thyatira was Apollo Tyrimnaeus, said to be a son of Zeus and patron of the local bronze trade.  Coins from Thyatira show Tyrinmaeus on one side and the Roman emperor—as far as the Romans were concerned, the “son of god”—on the other.  With all this in mind the imagery Jesus uses in addressing the Christians there is fitting.  Look at Revelation 2:18:


“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.


Jesus exhorts the church at Thyatira be reminding them that he, not Caesar, is the son of God.  And while the pagans might think that Apollo Tyrimnaeus is the one who shines like the son—Apollo was a solar deity—and oversaw the bronze trade, Jesus is the one with feet of bronze and eyes “like a flame of fire”.  Jesus knew that his people in Thyatira were being challenged by the pagans and so as he comes to this struggling church he issues his own challenge to the pagans and to their gods and kings.


Jesus begins by affirming his people for what they’ve done right.  Look at verse 19:


“ ‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.


He’s seen their love, their faith, their service, and their patient endurance.  A better translation of the last part of the verse would be something like, “Your deeds more recently are greater than they were at first” or “Your works have been more impressive lately than they once were.”  This church has been in the crucible of pagan opposition and instead of the pressure causing them to back off their good works, it’s actually inspired them to do better.  Their love has grown.  Jesus uses the word agapé, the sort of humble love that puts others first.  Their faith has been stretched and has grown in the process.  And their service—Jesus uses the work diakonía.  That’s where we get our work “deacon”.  They not only love each other, but they serve each other, they care deeply for each other in practical ways.  This is good.


But it’s not all good.  Jesus goes on:


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.  I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.


The problem in Thyatira is the opposite of the problem in Ephesus.  In Ephesus they’d been faithful in holding the line against false doctrine and sinful practise, but they’d lost their love, they’d lost their agape.  In Thyatira, the people had great love for each other, but the elders—with the support of many of the church members it seems—were tolerating false teaching and sinful practises.  Jesus rebuked the church in Pergamum for tolerating the teaching of the Nicolaitans and compared that teaching to that Old Testament villain, Balaam.  He couldn’t curse the Israelites so that they would lose in battle to the Moabite king, so he instead encouraged the king to send out the women of Moab to entice the Israelite men into idolatry and sexual immorality.  Here Jesus highlights the awfulness of this sin by comparing its teachers to another Old Testament villain: Jezebel.  Do you remember her?  Jezebel’s story is told in 1 Kings 16-22.  She was the wife of King Ahab.  He was a bad guy and probably would have been a bad king without her—he made the foolish choice to marry a Phoenician, a pagan—but Jezebel’s influence only compounded his wickedness.  The writer of Kings says that he did more to provoke the anger of the Lord than all the kings who were before him (1 Kings 16:33).  Jezebel led the covenant people into idolatry.  2 Kings 9:22 describes the actions of the people under Jezebel’s influence as “whorings” and “sorceries”.  The word for “whorings” is one that’s always used metaphorically for idolatry.  It’s rooted in the idea that Israel was the Lord’s bride.  He’d rescued her from Egypt, he’d provided a good home for her, he’d loved her tenderly, but rather than worship him, she prostituted herself to foreign gods.  At its root, idolatry is unfaithfulness to the Lord.  But in Israel it wasn’t an outright rejection of the Lord.  The people tried to have it both ways.  They’d worship in the temple, they’d pray to the Lord, but they’d also go out to the “high places” and worship and pray at the altars of the pagan gods too.  In Judah the worship of the Lord continued in the temple, but pagan altars were erected in the temple precincts and the priests and people would worship both the Lord and those foreign gods.  But in the end, that’s not true worship of the Lord, it’s not true love of the Lord.  Just as you can’t claim to love your wife while you cavort with prostitutes, you can’t claim love of the Lord, while practising idolatry or engaging wilfully in sin.


But that’s just what was going on in Thyatira.  It wasn’t the whole church as we’ll see in a bit, but a significant number of the people there were comprising with paganism.  It was always a temptation in the pagan world.  Rome pressured its citizens to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor as a show of patriotism.  Pagan religious practises were integrated into just about every aspect of life in the Greco-Roman world, so there was constant pressure to compromise.  Reading between the lines in Thyatira, it seems that it was the trade guilds that put pressure on people.  If you wanted to keep your job, so to speak, you had to take part in this or that ritual, whether a feast to some god or even ritual sex.


What was the justification here?  It’s hard to say, but even if it’s not what these folks would have admitted, the root cause was almost undoubtedly the pressure to conform in order to get by in a pagan world.  But, of course, hardly anyone ever gives that as the reason for their compromise.  They always come up with something that sounds spiritual—even mature.  Jesus says that this woman claims to be a prophet.  This is often the cover of people who introduce error into the Church.  They claim the status of prophet or apostle, they claim to be speaking the words of God himself.  That’s always a bad sign.  At the time Revelation was written, God was still in the process of delivering his word through the Apostles and Evangelists.  And so the Lord gave legitimate prophets to his church.  But we have his word in full today.  And that word is sufficient.  It is our authority.  And in my nearly fifty years I have yet to ever hear someone preface their words with, “I am a prophet” and not go on to say something at odds with the authoritative word of God.  Again, in John’s day there were real prophets, but there were plenty of false ones too.  They needed to be particularly cautious about anyone claiming to speak the word of the Lord.  They needed to weigh their words against the scriptures.  And the Thyatirans weren’t doing that.  Back then they had their own version of today’s justifications to compromise.  If there’s only one true God, then whatever path you take will get you to him.  It’s okay to dabble with sin, just don’t cross the line.  You’ve got to get down and dirty with sinners if you’re going to evangelise them.  Better to compromise and live, than to be a hard-liner and die.


I think, however, that we get a big hint in that Jesus notes their love for each other.  Love for each other in the Church is good.  It’s necessary.  If we don’t love each other, we’re not being the Church.  Remember how Jesus rebuked the Ephesians for their lack of love even though they’d held tenaciously to the truth of the faith.  But our love for each other often becomes the justification for tolerating heresy and sin—and I daresay that this is the single most common justification in today’s church.  Love and unity are stressed above everything else.  But, Brothers and Sisters, when this happens, love ceases to be love.  It’s like people who refuse to discipline their children in the name of love, but the reality is that if we really do love our children, we do discipline them—just as the Lord disciplines us, just as he disciplines his church.  Jesus rebukes his church here in Revelation because he loves his bride with all his heart and he desires her purity.  And if that’s what love looks like to Jesus, it ought to look that way to us, his people, too.  Love does not tolerate those who lead the sheep astray.  David Chilton writes:


“Orthodox, Biblical Christianity is intolerant.  A church that tolerates evil and false doctrine is a church under judgment; God will not long tolerate her.  This is not to say that Christians should be intolerant of each other’s mistakes, idiosyncrasies, and differences over nonessentials.  But when it comes to clear violations of Biblical law and orthodox doctrine, the government of the church is required by Scripture to put a stop to it before it destroys the church.”[1]


Now, all that said, the Lord is also patient.  Jesus says that he has given this “Jezebel” time to repent.  We see his love in this as well.  But she has continued to impose on that love and has continued in her immorality and her corruption of his bride and so he goes on in verses 22-25:


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, 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.  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.  Only hold fast what you have until I come.


This false prophetess was encouraging idolatrous sexual immorality.  People were, metaphorically speaking, getting into bed with her—or maybe they were literally—but whatever the case, Jesus is saying: “Her bed is a sickbed and if this is the direction you insist on going, if you don’t repent, I will come in judgement and you will die along with her!  Your elders may tolerate this kind of heresy and sin in my bride, but I do not and I will make sure that everyone knows that I’m paying attention and that I will purify my bride.”  Brothers and Sisters, God is the judge.  Revelation is about his coming in judgement on unbelieving Israel, it’s about his coming in judgement on the pagan world of the Greeks and Romans, but it’s also about him coming in judgement on his church where it has forsaken him.  He always puts his own house, his own children in order, before coming in judgement to others.


To everyone else in the church in Thyatira who hasn’t fallen prey to this false teaching, Jesus gives a message to persevere.  Remember Revelation is first and foremost about three things: tribulation, kingdom, and perseverance.  These brothers and sisters have demonstrated their love for each other, their faith is strong, and they’ve committed themselves to serve one another—and their theology is orthodox.  Jesus lays nothing more on them.  They’re doing what he expects of his Church.  They’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.  They’ve held the line, even as the elders in the church have failed to do so.  And so Jesus exhorts them: Hold fast until I come.  Jesus knows the trials they face, but in faith they know that he is with them and they’re standing firm.  And so he reminds them: I’m coming.  I will judge the faithless.  I will take care of Jezebel and everyone who has assisted her in her wicked agenda and everyone who remains unrepentant in following her.  I will purify my church.


And Jesus says further to the faithful:


The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 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.  And I will give him the morning star.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’


Jesus speaks all these things with authority and he quotes from Psalm 2.  This is one of what’re called the “royal psalms”.  In Psalm 2 the Messiah is given authority to rule the nations.  Here’s what verses 8 and 9 say:


Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,

         and the ends of the earth your possession.

You shall break them with a rod of iron

         and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”


Jesus bears this authority, but now he exhorts the faithful in Thyatira saying that they will share in this royal authority with him.  The kingdom has been inaugurated and one day Jesus will bring it in all its fullness—and that will happen through the ministry of a faithful church proclaiming the lordship of Jesus to the ends of the earth and bringing his dominion to bear on the world.  Today God’s people face persecution.  Psalm 2 opens with the question:


Why do the nations rage

         and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves,

         and the rulers take counsel together,

         against the Lord and against his Anointed… (Psalm 2:1-2)


The gods and kings shake their fists at the Lord, they make plans against his anointed—as they did against Jesus—and against his people.  And yet the Psalmist gives us a glimpse into the heavenly throne room and writes:


He who sits in the heavens laughs.  (Psalm 2:4)


Their plans are pathetic.  They will not succeed.  The forces of evil did their worst on Good Friday.  They even killed the son of God.  And he rose victorious three days later.  Even death itself, the greatest enemy of humanity is powerless before Jesus—and it has no more hold over his people than it does him.


And that leads us to the last bit here in verse 28.  Jesus says he will give to the conquerors the morning star.  In Chapter 22, Jesus himself is identified as the morning star and, I think, what he’s getting at here is a promise of his presence with his people.  He will share his authority with them—with us—but he shares with us, too, his very identity.  The morning star, literally, is the planet Venus—one of the brightest objects in the sky just before dawn breaks, and in that it’s symbolic both of Jesus and of the vocation of his people and, especially, those persevering in the face of tribulation and in the midst of others who are compromising the faith.  Brothers and Sisters, Jesus has set us apart as a people to witness his kingdom to the world.  As St. Paul wrote to the Romans:


The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  (Romans 13:12)


The Church is the sign to the world of the breaking kingdom dawn—of God’s new world in which love, faith, service will be defining characteristics, where idolatry and immorality will be gone forever, and where the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea—through the glorious reign of Jesus.  Brothers and Sisters, stand firm and persevere in faith for Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.


Let’s pray: Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities; and in all our dangers and necessities stretch out your right hand to help and defend us, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


[1] The Days of Vengeance (Ft. Worth: Dominion Press, 1987), 113.

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