For a short video recording of this sixth session through the book of Revelation, click here or on the image below.
How much freedom do we have in Christ? What may we do with our freedom? These are the questions that the church in Thyatira grappled with towards the end of the first century. Plagued by trials and temptations under tyrannical Roman rule, John penned words and comfort and correction to this and six other churches in Asia Minor about the victory we have in Christ; the circular letter is known as the Revelation of Christ.
Thyatira is known today as Akhisar in far west Turkey. This ancient city was strategically located as a buffer to the Roman empire, obstructing the path of its enemies and giving it time to gather military strength. It was located in a rich agricultural area and was famous for its purple dye. This city prospered during the Roman Empire through the security of the army and the trade routes through it. The remains of its temples and amphitheater bears witness of the culture of that day. History also teaches us that many Jews settled in Thyatira during the reign of Seleucus I (305-281 BC).
Thyatiran coins of that era reveal strong trade guilds of weaving, leather, pottery, and bronze melting active in this city. These guilds, forerunners to our trade unions, formed leagues who promoted and protected their trade and its workers. In this pagan environment the guilds had their own gods whom they worshiped together in the hope of success and prosperity. These regular religious rituals involved sharing in a feast consisting of the meats offered to the gods. These feasts ended in revelries and religious orgies, symbolizing the fertility of their trades.
Because of the pagan association of these trade guilds, Christians found it hard to work in cities with strong guilds: firstly because of a refusal to participate in the worship of pagan gods; secondly because they refused to eat meat offered to idols; and thirdly because of the perverse nature of these communal meals. And this was the contentious issue for the church in Thyatira at the time of John’s writing.
The letter of Christ to the church in Thyatira is the longest and sternest of all seven dictated to by John (Revelation 2:18-28).
Revelation (2:18). Christ reveals himself to be present with this church as “the Son of God” – implying the True Son of God. In Thyatira both emperor Domitian and the god Heracles were worshiped as “son of god”; yet Jesus starts this letter by asserting his authority and supremacy over the city and its church. He continues by revealing himself as One “whose eyes are like blazing fire” – who sees everything, with nothing hidden from his sight; “and whose feet are like burnished bronze” – a strong ruler with a secure reign (compare Daniel 2:31-35). Jesus comforts the church that his reign is lasting, but warns them that he sees everything and “searches the hearts and minds” (2:23) of all men.
Commendation (2:19). Jesus begins his letters to Thyatira with affirmation of their steadfast “works, love, service, faith and patient endurance” in this harsh and hostile environment, lauding that their have even increased! With this clear statement Christ honours the faithfulness of this church.
Accusation (2:20-23). But in this church the Lord also sees something abominable: this congregation allows a false teacher, “Jezebel… mislead(ing) my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” It is very improbable that there was a woman named Jezebel in the congregation at Thyatira because of the name’s origin and unfavorable connotations. Rather, the apocalyptic genre of Revelation invites us to read this “prophetess” as a type of Jezebel in the the Old Testament, revealing something of her character and conduct in the church, which Christ strongly condemns.
Jezebel, wife of King Ahab, was a Sidonian princess married to Ahab, King of Israel for political association (1 Kings 16:31; around 850 BC). She is infamous for being the most wicked and destructive queen in Israel’s history. She was a priestess of Baal and Asherah, a witch practicing sorcery, who was set on making these pagan religions Israels official state religion (1 Kings 18:19; 2 Kings 9:22). Jezebel not only promoted the worship of these Canaanite fertility gods by erecting places of (immoral) worship and training Baal and Asherah priests, spreading them throughout Israel; she also violently persecuted all the priests and prophets loyal to God.
Therefore, as elsewhere in the Bible, Jezebel’s name in Revelation 2:20 is synonymous with leading God’s people into idolatry and immorality; she is one who turns the hearts of God’s people away from him through seduction, manipulation and intimidation. This Thyatiran “teacher and prophetess” sins against God and his people by permitting the church to participate in the perverse guild festivities – presumable under the guise of “freedom in Christ” (see Paul’s instructions in Galatians 5:13-26). Grace does not give the church freedom to sin, but freedom from sin.
Warning and exhortation (2:21-25). Christ states that he had given this prophetess time to repent, but now declares that he is about to judge her and all who hold on to her teachings. The judgment will be some severe sickness. The exhortation to the church is to turn away from this false prophetess’ “so-called deep secrets of Satan” (2:24) before the judgment begins. As God did with Ahab’s wife Jezebel, so the Lord promises to “kill all her children” to remind the Church “that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.” (2:23)
The phrase “searches the heart and mind” points to the core of the issue: these false prophesies were merely license for the church to live out their carnal desires for social acceptance and sexual appetites above allegiance to Christ. Like Paul warned, these transgressors “are being lead astray by their carnal desires.” (2 Timothy 3:6)
However – the Lord sees and honours those in this church who do not follow Jezebel’s deception teachings. To the faithful ones Christ “do(es) not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.” (2:24-25). The phrase “no other burden” reminds the readers/ hearers of the First Apostolic Council’s in Jerusalem which stated that gentile converts to Christianity did not have to fulfill the whole Torah, “except to abstain from from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication.” (Acts 15:28-29). Just remain faithful Jesus as you do now – He will come and reward you!
Promise (2:26-28). To the those “who overcome” Christ promises to share in his victorious reign (quoting from Psalm 2:9). He also promises “the morning star” – to share in Christ’s own glory (Revelation 22:16).
What should this church overcome? The only power Jezebel had over them was deception: telling them that what they really wanted was indeed permitted by Christ. This church’s desire for social inclusion and sensual lusts at these pagan feasts were what they had to overcome. They had to overcome the lure of temporal pleasures by the surety of a greater, eternal pleasure. Their refusal to partake of these pleasures in this pagan culture was witness to their allegiance to Christ and their hope of a better kingdom (Hebrews 11:16).
Bringing it home.
Although our work environments might not require outright worship of pagan gods, social pressure to conform is still strong, and refusal to participate in work-place customs often lead to exclusion and limiting career options. The temptation to conform to immoral or unethical work practices is very real today. But this means unfaithfulness to Christ.
Likewise, 2000 years of human development have not changed our sensual desires. The temptation to conform to contemporary immoral norms is as strong in our day as back then in Thyatira. This too is unfaithfulness to Christ.
Like the false prophetess “Jezebel” in Thyatira, there are many who say Christ’s grace covers these sins and therefore it is permitted. But Christ’s warning and exhortation to us is the same as to them: he is the judge who sees everything – so remain faithful until he comes and he will reward you.