The Church at Thyatira
Alan Gamble, Glasgow, Scotland
The city and the church
Thyatira was the fourth city on the route of the messenger bringing the letters from the Lord to the churches of Roman Asia. Lying about 40 miles south-east from Pergamum, Thyatira had once been a garrison town. In John’s day, it was a prosperous manufacturing and commercial centre. A leading feature of life there was the network of guilds which regulated the various trades e.g., woolworkers, bakers, and slave dealers. No one could operate in a trade covered by a guild without being a member. Each guild had a patron deity. Their meetings involved worship of these gods, drunkenness and debauchery. As in the ancient world generally, idolatry and immorality were inextricably linked. One of the leading industries of Thyatira was the dyeing of clothes with purple dye made from the madder root. Lydia from Thyatira was ‘a seller of purple goods’, Acts 16. 14 ESV. She was converted at Philippi and may have returned home with the gospel. Another possibility is that the church in Thyatira was planted during Paul’s two-year stay in Asia, Acts 19. 10. We simply do not know how the Christian assembly in this city commenced.
The description of Christ, v. 18
Each of the seven epistles begins with a description of the exalted Lord, drawn from John’s vision recorded in chapter 1 verses 9- 20. The features highlighted in each letter are those most suitable for the situation in the church addressed and for the great issue raised by each epistle. STOTT helpfully emphasizes that the Lord’s chief concern in the letter to Thyatira is holiness. Thus, the Son of God (a title used uniquely in Revelation in verse 18)1 is described as having eyes like flaming fire and feet like burnished bronze. These features reveal His omniscience2 and omnipotence. Absolutely nothing is hidden from those searing eyes. They pierce the innermost depth of human personality. No pretence can survive His blazing glance. The Lord is fully aware of our every thought and motive. He is also powerful in executing judgement. By these awesome attributes, He is fully equipped to judge His people. The sentences He pronounces in verses 22-23 will make this manifest to all.
The diagnosis of the church, vv. 19-25
The most significant words used in each of the seven letters are, ‘I know’, spoken by the Omniscient One. They give His infallible diagnosis of the spiritual state of each church. The church in Thyatira was threatened from within by false teaching. Christ exposes the situation with absolute clarity. However, He commends before He condemns. We should be eager to praise first if we are to venture any criticism.
Three features stand out in the Lord’s diagnosis of Thyatira:
1. Devotion in practical service
Thyatira was marked by good works. These stemmed from love to God and man. Their love produced service. Their faith resulted in perseverance. They worked and kept on working. Their latter works exceeded their first, the very opposite to the situation of Ephesus, Rev. 2. 5. With time, the good works of Thyatira had grown. In all these ways it was an exemplary assembly. The Lord Jesus still values practical, patient service for others which flows from devotion to Him. In emphasizing correctly that salvation does not issue from good works, we must not ignore the equally biblical truth that it does issue in good works.3 Christians today should be characterized by practical concern for others.
2. Devastation by doctrinal error
The word ‘but’ in verse 20 is crucial. It marks the sharpest possible contrast from the commendation that the Lord has just given. Now He moves on to censure. The problems of Pergamum were magnified in Thyatira.4 They were tolerating ‘a Jezebel of a woman’ who taught and prophesied among them.5 Clearly, she was a false prophet and teacher. She was displaying the wicked features of the Jezebel of the Old Testament who had fostered idolatry in Israel. Her activities were having a devastating effect. True teaching is more than merely the communication of information. It transforms character. So, false teaching eventually corrupts it. This false prophetess was persuading Christians to practise sexual immorality and eat food offered to idols. No doubt this was by encouraging active participation in the trade guilds and their feasts. She probably argued that those possessed by the Spirit were free of moral restraints and could live as they liked in the body. The Lord’s indignation at her teaching is shown by the way He describes her. It is also shown by the way He refers to the people she was trying to seduce. He calls them ‘my own slaves’, THOMAS. They belonged to Him, purchased by His blood. They owed Him uncompromised allegiance. ‘Jezebel’ was working towards them renouncing it.
The source of her teaching was satanic.6 To steer clear of the trade guilds was costly, involving a loss of livelihood, bankruptcy or unemployment. This was the price loyal Christians had to pay if they rejected the seductive teaching of the prophetess. In the 21st century, the Lord still prizes holiness and distinctiveness among His people. Holiness still becomes God’s house.7 To follow such a lifestyle in modern society with its own forms of idolatry and characteristic sexual immorality remains costly. There was a faithful remnant in this church. Christ placed no other burden on them than ‘to keep doing what they were already doing – standing apart from the satanically deceptive teaching’, ALLEN. These believers had to hold fast to what they had, service to others and resistance to false teaching, until the Lord’s return. In our day we too must prize the truth and seek to practise it as we await the Lord’s imminent arrival.
3. Detestation of false teaching and wrong living The false teaching provoked the holy wrath of the Lord Jesus. He expresses His utter abhorrence of ‘Jezebel’ and all her followers by the judgements He pronounces against them. The false prophetess had been given an opportunity to repent. Perhaps this had been through the ministry of John. She was obstinate in her refusal to do so. The Lord pronounces the judgement of a ‘sickbed’ NKJV/ESV upon her. ‘This would probably be her deathbed. Those linked with her are threatened with great tribulation unless they repent. This refers to pressure and pain, not the coming Great Tribulation’, ALLEN. Her children, probably not her literal children but her most devoted adherents, have a death sentence, probably by pestilence, passed against them. In our day, we tend to have a sentimental view of the Lord Jesus. This passage reminds us that He must act against conduct which defiles His utter holiness.
The destiny of the overcomer, vv. 26-29
As with all the letters, this one concludes with a promise from the Lord Jesus to each genuine Christian. An overcomer ‘is not a member of a special class of Christians distinguished by their spirituality and power’, THOMAS. Uniquely, the overcomers are here described as those who keep Christ’s works to the end. This underlines the importance of perseverance. The Christian life is not a single battle. It is a lengthy war. The destiny held out to the overcomers here is, firstly, to share with the Lord Jesus His absolute authority over the nations in His coming Millennial reign as the Shepherd King. Secondly, they are to be granted ‘the morning star’. This promise refers to the personal presence of Christ when He returns to rapture His church. Later, in Revelation, He describes Himself as the bright and morning star, Rev. 22. 16. ‘He is coming in dazzling splendour as the harbinger of the dawn which will break over the world at the commencement of His glorious kingdom’, ALLEN. There can be no greater incentive than to be assured of future fellowship with Christ in glory.
- Note the reference to Psalm 2. 9 in verse 27. The Lord Jesus is addressed as God’s Son in Psalm 2. 7.
- Jeremiah 17. 10. is quoted in verse 23. This implies Christ’s deity.
- Eph. 2. 8-10, Titus 2. 14, 3. 8,14.
- In Pergamum, there were those who held false teaching. In Thyatira, the teaching was actually given in the church.
- Women possessed the genuine gift of prophesy in the early church, Acts 21. 9; 1 Cor. 11. 4. However, they were precluded from public participation in church meetings and from teaching, 1 Cor. 14. 34; 1 Tim. 2. 12. The prophetess in Thyatira was not only contravening that restriction but was propagating fundamentally false doctrine.
- The reference to ‘the depths of Satan’ in verse 24 probably means that Jezebel claimed that her teaching was profound. Actually it was not the deep things of God but those of Satan. Contrast 1 Cor. 2. 10.
- Ps. 93. 5; 1 Cor. 3. 16-17.
The following three books are extremely helpful in understanding the letters to the churches:
J. ALLEN, Revelation – Ritchie, Kilmarnock, 1997
J. R. W. STOTT, What Christ Thinks of the Church – Baker, Grand Rapids, 2003
R. L. THOMAS, Revelation 1-7 – Moody, Chicago, 1992