The letter to the church in Thyatira is the longest and in some ways most difficult of the seven letters. It is interesting that this is the longest letter given that of the seven cities it was the least impressive politically and economically. Thyatira began as a military outpost at the intersection of several roads. Conspicuous for having access to a strong bronze ore, the artisans of the city became well known for making impressive weapons.
The extended peace of Rome allowed Thyatira to move from a culture of war to a culture of trade. Thyatira especially became the center for several trade-guilds. We know through archaeology of the following trade-guilds that met regularly in Thyatira: wool-workers, linen-workers, makers of outer garments, dyers, leather-workers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave-dealers, and bronze-smiths.
The spiritual problem that arose in Thyatira was likely connected to the pagan nature of these guild meetings. The guild meetings not only included many pagan and idolatrous elements, but wild partying and open sexual immorality also accompanied them. It would have been almost impossible for citizens of Thyatira to participate in the economy of the city without also participating in the guild meetings.
Highly influenced by the moral and sexual laxity of Roman culture, in the spirit of “what happens at in Thyatira stays in Thyatira,” these events were almost always filled with wild and drunken partying. As William Barclay writes, “The problem which faced every Christian in Thyatira was whether they were to make money or to be Christians.”
18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze:
The one who judges the church in Thyatira has the kind of eyes that burns and purifies. Like the purification and shaping of the bronze for which Thyatira was well known, the one who stands in authority of the churches intends to purify them.
19 “I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first. 20 But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.
The problem in Thyatira was apparently a woman within the congregation who began to have great influence as a prophetess and teacher. In the Old Testament Jezebel led the people into idolatry. Like the Nicolaitans who appeared in the letters to Ephesus and Pergamum, she was likely encouraging the Christians to participate more fully in the guilds of the city by denying the connection of the body and soul together. It is important for the reader to understand that her presence and her arguments were very subtle and so not clearly “outside” or obviously out-of-bounds for believers. Given the division between the kingdom and the world that runs through the center of each person, the teaching of “Jezebel” can begin to make sense.
Here are the kinds of arguments that Jezebel was likely making:
- The rituals of the guilds aren’t really meaningful to even the pagans. They have become mere ritual.
- We know the gods are nothing.
- Participation gives us the opportunity to be a positive influence.
- Our spirit matters more than our body.
- If we do not participate we will not only be persecuted and left out, we will lose all relevance to the city and the guilds.
The tension is the very real – everyday – question of fitting in to the culture and prospering or living as a faithful witness to the kingdom and accepting whatever costs come with faithfulness.
21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. 22 Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.
The Revelator has several responses to the tempting teaching of “Jezebel.” “I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent her fornications” (2:21). The one who “has eyes like a flame of fire” (2:18) is merciful even to Jezebel and gave her time to repent. But she remains unfaithful. It is quite possible given the sexual nature of the guild festivities to take the inference to fornication quite literally. However, it is far more likely that John is joining the OT prophets in comparing the people to God to an unfaithful spouse.
The judgment on Jezebel is most likely a reference to the banquet couches upon which those who attended the guild feasts would have reclined. It is stark language. The couches or beds that are currently associated with partying and wild living will instead become associated with the distress and brokenness that they represent for Jezebel and her children – those following her teaching. This is an important aspect of the gospel. The narrow road is the road where life is found. But the broad road of accommodation to the culture looks like the right road but it always leads to brokenness and the life far from the life God created people to live.
The cost of faithfulness is not a matter of suffering now as the people of God so that we can experience the “good life” in heaven. The cost comes from witnessing to the “good life” now in a world that does not always understand nor embody God’s good purposes. The cost of discipleship is not delayed gratification but the cost of witness.
24 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; 25 only hold fast to what you have until I come.
The phrase “deep things of Satan” is perplexing for scholars. It is likely that those who were following the teachings of “Jezebel” prided themselves on being wiser or more sophisticated than those who were remaining faithful. (They also may have been Gnostics pursuing the “secret knowledge” of the spirit). This is often the case for the faithful that not participating in the power and licentiousness of the culture feels like being left out of something. Especially for the young in the body of Christ it often feels like uniqueness is especially challenging when “everybody is doing it.” But these “deep things” do not lead to greater knowledge but to greater destruction.
26 To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations; 27 to rule them with an iron rod, as when clay pots are shattered— 28 even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. 29 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
In the letter to Pergamum we saw the contrast between the city that had been empowered to “bear the sword” for the Empire and Christ, the one who bears the two-edged sword. Here the weapon is not a weapon of war but of commerce – the rod of iron. The question is: who has the power of life and economy? In other words, God may be Lord of the nations (armies), but is he also Lord over economies?
The answer seems to be that believers must trust in the one who has the power to crush all of the “clay pots” – the vessels made by human hands – of the world of business. The letter to Thyatira is important for us to hear because we all have a tendency to separate our lives into segments. We separate the spiritual and the economic. But for God there is no separation.
Thus, here is the problem for Jezebel and the Christians of Thyatira, God doesn’t divide our lives between the physical and the spiritual or the sacred and the secular. God doesn’t allow us to segment our lives that way. We don’t get to say, this is the business part of my life, this is my family part, this is my spiritual part, etc. Although we at times may wear different hats of responsibility, God sees our life as a unified whole. For God you can’t say, “It’s not spiritual, it’s business” because it all belongs to him.