18 And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: “Thus saith the Son of God, he who has eyes as a flame of fire and his feet like burnished bronze. 19 I know your works, even your love and faith and service and steadfastness, and your latter works [are] greater than [your] first ones. 20 But I have against you that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, the one who calls herself a prophetess but she teaches and leads my servants astray to commit fornication and to eat meat sacrificed to idols. 21 But I have given her time in order that she might repent, however she isn’t willing to repent from her fornication. 22 Behold, I will cast her onto a [sick] bed, and those who commit adultery with her to a great tribulation unless they repent from her works. 23 And her children I will put to death by death [or pestilence]. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches out the thoughts and hearts, and I shall give to you, to each one, according to your works. 24 But to you I say–to those in Thyatira, as many as do not have this teaching, whichever ones have not known “the deep things of Satan” as they say–I don not cast upon you another burden 25 only that you hold on to what you have until whenever I shall come. 26 And the one who overcomes, even the one who keeps my works to the end, I shall give him authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with an iron rod as [when] earthen vessels are shattered, 28 even as I have received [authority] from my father. Also I shall give to him the morning star. 29 The one having an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
The city of Thyatira was about 35 miles inland between Pergamum and Sardis. It’s mentioned in Acts 16 as the home town of Lydia, a seller of purple who was the first European to become a Christian under Paul’s ministry. It’s possible she learned her trade in Thyatira since the dyeing process there was well-known, and the dyers’ guild was very strong. Indeed, Thyatira seemed to have a guild for just about every trade imaginable from tanners and potters to linen workers to slave traders. Membership in one of these guilds was critical for anyone wanting to prosper in a city like Thyatira. These guilds not only gave you contacts, but they gave you recognition and a certain sense of security. However, many of the guilds had their own patron deities, and the members would often gather to worship and celebrate their particular deity. This was seen as part of the membership requirements, something that a faithful Christian would find intolerable. For those Christians unwilling to compromise the gospel and their commitment to Christ, this meant they would be barred from the guilds, something that would cost them dearly both financially, and in terms of their reputation.
So the church in Thyatira faces pressure from without and from within. Not only is there the fiscal and social pressure to conform to the world and give in to the demands of the culture to join in with worshiping their gods, but there was a faction within the church that appeared to teach it was okay to do so. A prominent woman had set herself up in their midst as a prophetess, and, from what we can discern, was leading a portion of the congregation astray with the idea that it was acceptable for Christians to join with the pagans at least in appearance. This was a “deeper” teaching, and one that would have appealed to people feeling the rub of social ostracism and poverty.
To counter this, Christ presents himself to the church in the language of 1:14-15: with fiery eyes and burnished bronze feet. When we studied these verses back in the spring, we noted the link between this description and Daniel 7:9 where the Ancient of Days has a throne that is a “flame of fire,” and Daniel 10:6 where the man is described as having “eyes… as lamps of fire” and his legs “like the gleam of burnished bronze.” In this vision, there is a prophecy that God will bring judgment on Daniel’s enemies. We also see the “fire” theme in Daniel 3 and the story of Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego. While Daniel’s friends are in the fiery furnace, they are protected by a figure described by Nebuchadnezzar’s counselors as being “like a son of God.” These references would serve to remind the church that Christ is both the protector of the saints and the judge of their enemies.
We should note at this point that Christ doesn’t promise the church removal from tribulation and persecution. He assures them of his abiding presence through the fires, and the fact that he will protect the souls of his people, but those who overcome are those who go through the trials and come out the other side with their faith and trust in Christ intact.
Jesus knows the works of the Thyatirans: love, faith, service, endurance–in other words, they have kept themselves true to Christ, and maintained a witness in a hostile, pagan environment, despite pressure to compromise. At least for the most part. It’s worth noting that while these words wouldn’t be true for the whole church, Jesus c0mmends the church as a whole. This could mean either the compromising faction is relatively small, or Jesus doesn’t consider “Jezebel” and her followers truly part of the church. Unlike the Ephesian church, the Thyatirans have not been afraid to be counted as Christ’s, and rather than losing their first love, they have gone from strength to strength since the Lord notes that their “latter works” are greater than their first.
The problem with the church in Thyatira is the woman called “Jezebel” who identifies herself as a prophetess and is leading Christ’s people away into immorality and idolatry. I don’t think we have any reason to doubt that this “Jezebel” was a real person in the church, though I doubt that was her real name. It’s possible Jesus uses this name to protect her identity should the letter fall into hostile hands; the church knows who she is, if only by the use of this name. In 1 Kings 16, we are told that Ahab did the most to provoke the Lord than any of the kings before him, and his wife, Jezebel, was the force behind his wickedness. For all the evil Jezebel did, however, I don’t see a single reference to her actually committing acts of sexual immorality, whether fornication or adultery. The sin that she is most vilified for is leading Israel astray into idolatry and compromise with the pagan neighbors. While I wouldn’t rule out that sexual immorality could be part of the pagan ceremonies in Thyatira, the main concern is spiritual adultery. And if sexual immorality was involved, I think it came about through worldly compromise, not by direct teaching. In other words, if the pagans had a deficient view of marriage and sexual purity, then compromising with the pagans would eventually entail endorsing, if not participating in such things. So “Jezebel” wouldn’t need to lead people directly to sexual immorality, she just needed to encourage them to be more like the pagans, and the rest would follow.
It’s clear to the Lord that “Jezebel” is a false prophetess, but his main concern is that the church isn’t dealing with her. Though the church as a whole is faithful, the leadership is permitting this woman and her followers to remain among them. It would seem the church recognizes her teaching is bad, and while the majority are willing to resist her overtures, they are not willing to cast her out. Why? I can think of four possible reasons:
- They don’t think her teaching is that bad, and she’s not really doing a lot of damage. I have my doubts about this given that they could see the harm it was doing to those led astray by her. Maybe they weren’t aware of how serious her teaching was and Christ is here alerting them to it? Again, I can’t imagine a church living in close proximity not knowing what’s going on with a group like that.
- This “Jezebel” is a prominent person within the congregation, and maybe even the city. Perhaps she exercises influence that could bring trouble to the church if they do anything to upset her. One possibility is that she’s wealthy and gives generously to the church. If we recall the financial pressure the majority would be under from not participating in the guilds, there would be a serious temptation to curry favor with major donors, regardless of the bad influence they are having within the church.
- Perhaps they don’t want to appear “unloving.” Jesus commended the church for their love, and maybe this is not just love for the Lord, but love for one another. If they discipline “Jezebel” and her disciples, they might appear harsh and critical, which may in turn drive people away.
- Maybe they fear a church split. Casting these people out would be messy, as church discipline always is, and it may cause others to leave. During a time of persecution, when the church is under a great deal of external pressure, the last thing they need is to add to their problems with in-fighting.
Of course, what they need to realize is that no matter the consequences, the church would be better, stronger, and more spiritually stable without “Jezebel” and her followers. No-one should be above the doctrinal integrity of the church. Faithfulness to Christ should be the first priority of every under-shepherd in Christ’s church, and there should be zero tolerance for anyone who leads God’s people into idolatry and disobedience. Such discipline is not only good for the church, but it is in the best interest of the offender. While the church coddles them, there is no opportunity for repentance. But when the church calls them on their sin, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration can take place. A timely reminder to the 21st century church, as well as to the first century church in Thyatira.
Christ’s response to the “Jezebel” faction is merciful: he gives them time to repent. However, “Jezebel” is unwilling, so Christ says he will “cast her onto a bed.” This is a Hebrew idiom suggesting that Christ will bring suffering upon her (some translations take this into account and render the word for bed as “sick bed”). As for her followers, they will face a “great tribulation” unless they repent from her deeds. I think the nature of this “tribulation” is spelled out in verse 23: they will be “killed by death.” This literal translation of the Greek can be understood as either “they will surely be killed,” or “they will be killed with plague.” Given what we read later in Revelation, the second option is probably the better translation.
What happens to “Jezebel” and her followers stands as a testimony to all the churches that Christ sees “minds and hearts” (literally, “kidneys and hearts” reflecting first century idiom). This phrase in verse 23 refers back to Jeremiah 17:10 where God says, “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind ["kidneys" in the Hebrew], to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit from his deeds.” The fact that Jesus claims the same ability as God to read minds and hearts shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Is it possible this “tribulation” they face is a future tribulation period? Whether or not there is a future tribulation period apart from all the other “tribulations” the church goes through, the “tribulation” Jesus speaks of here sounds to me like something that will affect just these people in this church. Christ is going to bring a great tribulation upon the unrepentant followers of “Jezebel.” To suggest this tribulation is one that affects the whole church at some future time would entail saying that “Jezebel” and her followers are not real people but are symbolic of some kind of universal apostasy, and I don’t see warrant for that in the text. As we’ve discussed before, these are real churches in first century Asia Minor undergoing real stress. The people at the church in Thyatira knew “Jezebel” and knew her followers. What Jesus says about them may have broad application to all false prophets and the churches that harbor them, but that doesn’t make the situation any less historical. I think if you were to ask the Christians in Thyatira about a future tribulation, they would say, “Future? What do you think’s happening now?”
As for the rest of the church, the faithful who have not fallen for the teaching of “Jezebel,” of course they need to deal with this false prophetess. But aside from this, he lays “no other burden” upon them but to stay faithful until Christ’s return. This command echoes the words used by the apostles in Acts 15:28 where they resolved to place “no other burden” upon the Gentiles than to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from strangled things, from blood, and from sexual immorality. At least two of these have relevance to the Thyatirans.
Christ describes the faithful as those who haven’t known “the depths of Satan, as they say” or “the so-called depths of Satan.” Given the prevalence of Gnostic teaching which tended to treat the material world with disdain, it’s possible that “Jezebel’s” teaching was a form of Gnosticism that regarded the flesh of no importance, so it didn’t matter what you did with your body, it’s the spirit that matters. I could imagine “Jezebel” justifying compromise with the pagans by teaching “as long as you are right in the spirit, it doesn’t matter what you do with your flesh.” I don’t think she would have referred to this teaching as “the depths of Satan”–that’s not particularly good marketing for a church, unless by that title she meant “the deeper truths regarding Satan” which I suppose is possible. My view is this was the title Jesus gave to her doctrine. She may have thought of her mystical, “prophetic” utterances as “the deep things of God,” but in truth, they are words from the pits of hell.
Is “until I return” a reference to the Second Coming, or are they to expect a visit from the Lord before then? As with the parables of the ten virgins and the thief in the night, the church is to stay faithful to Christ, not knowing exactly when he will return. I think the exhortation to the Thyatirans is the same exhortation Christ would give to us: hold on to the faith you have and don’t compromise with the world so you will be ready for me at my return.
In verses 26 and 27, Jesus quotes Psalm 2 by way of a promise to the overcomer that he will share in Christ’s reign over the nations. Those that persecute and oppress the church today will one day be subject to Christ and those who remained true to him. The reference to the “morning star” anticipates Revelation 22:16 where Jesus is described as the “bright morning star.” These verses affirm for the church Christ’s Messianic and sovereign rule over all things, and promises the faithful that they will rule with him in his eternal kingdom. Christ received authority from his Father, and now he shares it with his people. Let the one with an ear hear what the Spirit says to the churches–not just the church in Thyatira, but all churches everywhere.
Next time: The church at Sardis…