Christ Speaks to His Church at Thyatira – Revelation 2:18-29

As we mentioned last week, Thyatira is the 2nd of 3 churches that are being greatly tempted to compromise their faithfulness to Christ.  This letter is the longest of the “Letters to the Churches”,  and ironically, it is addressed to the smallest and least important city.  We are reminded that God, through John, is addressing the churches with strong language of encouragement and warning as they are facing opposition.  The word-pictures of Revelation make these addresses even more powerful.

The symbols of the introduction (vs. 18) provide a backdrop that we need to keep in mind as we study this passage.  There is great emphasis here.  This is not simply a message from the Apostle John, “These are the words of the Son of God…

These are to be taken very seriously.  This is the only place these words are used in the book, it emphasizes the power, the majesty, and the authority of the person of Christ.  The Son of God “Whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.”  These images speak of the fact that he sees everything and that he is swift in response to what is going on in the church — with encouragement or the destruction of evil.  The image also point out that Christ is much greater than the sun-god, Apollo, whose temple at Thyatira was famous.

Christ first focuses on the positive.  This church has some wonderful characteristics.  “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.”   These are very complementary things to say about a church.  This was a group of people who loved the Lord and had deep faith.  They demonstrated their love in action, service, and were patient in this love.  Even more surprising, because it so often happens the other way around in our experience, they were growing in these things so that they were more alive now than there were when young and new to the faith.  Isn’t it true that we would love to have these things said about us?  These are the characteristics we strive for as a church.

(vs. 20-21) Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. 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.”

Who is Jezebel? We suspect that John is referring to a specific person who had a following in this church.  We noted that the church in Pergamum was being pressured from the outside – all the social/political pressure.  Here, where the church was noted for its growth and vigor the attack on this church was poison from within.  Remember, these were not churches as we think of them; that is, with a big building on 13th Ave. and one organization.  These cities addressed were centers, cities with many small groups that often met in homes.  They were usually supervised by one or more elders or pastors for the area.  She may well have been a leader of one or more of these smaller groups.  John’s reference is clearly to JEZEBEL, the wife of Ahab king of Israel, who brought the idols and prophets of Baal to Israel with her when she married Ahab.  In the Old Testament a reference to Ahab almost always has the added phrase, “the king who made Israel to sin.”  So it appears that there was someone, a powerful woman in this church, who was leading the church astray.

In order to better understand what was happening, it will help us to see Thyatira and what was happening there.  Thyatira was a rather small town, compared to the other cities addressed.  It sat as a protection, down the road from Pergamum.  It’s significance in history was mostly as a strategic military outpost and a commercial center.

Not being a cultural or religious center the church at Thyatira did not suffer from persecution from either local idol worship or from emperor worship.  It seems the problem was not persecution of the type we have seen in other churches.  Rather, Thyatira, as a commercial center, had very strong trade-guilds — more than any other city in Asia Minor.  Because of them, we would call this a very middle-class city.  These trade guilds were rather like labor unions with great political and social power.

For example, inscriptions have been found regarding wool workers, linen workers, makers of outer garments, dyers, leather workers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave dealers, and bronze smiths.

In order to do business in Thyatira, one needed to be a member of one of these guilds.  In order for a young person to acquire a trade he had to be a member of a guild.  The problem was that being a member meant being a part of a social grouping.  That meant trade guild meetings that began and ended with a sacrifice to idols, the eating of food sacrificed to idols, and probably drunken feasts that included a lot of sexual immorality.  There is a reality here that I suspect at some level we are all aware of.  The most subtle challenge to faith does not usually originate in public amphitheaters but in the daily places where we earn the money we need to live.  We confront pragmatic values.  What works for us?

Jezebel, the prophetess of Thyatira, evidently encouraged Christians to be a part of the trade guilds, rather than being poor and socially ostracized in the community.  She taught that it was OK to participate in these social activities.  The immorality mentioned certainly refers to being unfaithful to God, just as the Old Testament often speaks of Israel as being an unfaithful partner to God.

So we see a situation in which one powerful leader is leading the church astray.  Remember the wonderful things said about this church in the beginning, however they are being pulled.  Of course, her teaching created at least two groups in the church, which because of the situation was a division between the rich and the poor.

(Vs. 22-23) “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 their ways.  I will strike her children (those who follow her) 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.

This is one of those moments in which we see the intensity of the love of the Lord for his faithful people, and his anger at those who would lead them away from him.  In these words we can see the fire in those eyes.  His threats were very clear, and he intended to use them as an example to all the other churches.

The words of this last sentence are Hebrew idiom that is very graphic.  It says that this is the Lord who searches the kidneys and hearts of people.  In Hebrew psychology the kidneys were the seat of the emotions and the heart was the seat of the intellect.  Christ will judge the emotional and intellectual realities and respond in exact judgment to those who are outside of his grace.

That takes us to a second observation about these words.  We sense that Christ judges people with two different standards.  We all know that those who were faithful in Thyatira had sins and weaknesses in their lives, but they stand in the grace of Christ.  By leading his people away from him, those followers of Jezebel put themselves outside of that grace, so that now they were judged according to their specific works.  Be sure you see the difference.  This is a distinction that is very important for us to make.  When we talk about being faithful and obedient to the Lord there always seems to be someone who points out that they live under grace, not law or expectations.  That is what Bonheoffer would call cheap grace.  Yes, all of us who are giving our best to live under to live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ have sins and failures and lapses into self-centered behaviors.  As we become more aware of that we go to the Lord in confession, seeking the grace we live under.  That is very different from deciding we can walk with impunity in self-centered disobedience to him, all the while justifying it as if Jesus doesn’t care.  Notice, everyone here was calling themselves Christian.  Yet, they put themselves outside of Christ’s realm of grace and become enemies of the kingdom.  Then judgment is not about the cross, but Christ will just each work.  Then the consequences are ultimately suffering and death.

Verse 24 is again an affirmation of those who are faithful in Thyatira, people who had not allowed the promises of riches and security at the compromise of their faithfulness to Christ to entice them.  For them there is no judgment.

 (Vs. 24-25) “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): Only hold on to what you have until I come.”

Christ has no other instruction for them other than to continue. To remain faithful.  The reference to the “Satan’s so called deep secrets”  is to some rationalization or justification for being a part of the trade guilds while claiming Christ at the same time.  I suspect we can immediately sense the power of any rationalization when the decision involves our financial welfare and the security and prosperity of our children.  It is not hard to be sympathetic with their dilemma.  Based on some other sources, this deep secret probably was an argument that went like this: the greater one’s sins are, the greater will be the experience of grace and forgiveness.  We do not miss the sarcasm about this being the “philosophical thinking of Satan” – here is the personification of evil.

In each letter, the promises to the faithful at the end fit their situation.  The faithful in Thyatira were poor and socially powerless. Here is the promise of the Christ who walks among the candlesticks: “To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations — “ They will rule like judges with absolute authority.  “Just as I have received authority from my Father.”

“I will also give him the morning star.”  This is most likely a reference to Christ himself.  Jesus says in Revelation 22:16, “I am the bright and morning star.”  Christianity is first of all a relationship with the one who gave us himself so that we can have life.  He gave himself to become incarnate at Christmas.  He poured himself out, says Paul in Philippians 2, so that he became a servant and was faithful to death for us, even death on the cross.  The morning star points to the resurrected Christ who is life eternal.

This letter gives us a description of a faithful church that is truly beautiful.  Here is a church whose deeds of love and faith, service and perseverance continue to grow.  We also hear the warning about rationalizing unfaithfulness, justifying having priorities like success, money, influence or social standing that are more important than our loyalty to Christ.  He is clear.  That is idolatry.  Let’s make this personal.  Are there rationalizations that justify Christians turning away from Christ now?  Are there voices that call us away from being faithful in love, faith, service and patient endurance?  Do we want to be a member of the club more than you want to belong to Christ?  Are there voices that  speak of the church just being about God’s blessings of health and wealth – not hard-won faithfulness?

May the Christ who walks among the lampstands that are the churches say to us: “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.”