Thyatira was a wealthy town on the Lycus River in the Roman province of Asia (modern-day Turkey).
Thyatira was the smallest of the seven cities, but the one that received the longest letter. It lay about 45 miles to the southeast of Pergamum and was famous for its textiles, especially the production of purple dye and its trade guilds.
This church was doing many things well, but they were being led astray by someone teaching false doctrine. Evidently a woman claiming to be a prophetess had been influencing some in this church to join the local trade guilds without which a tradesman could not work in Thyatira. This meant participation in the guild feasts that included immoral acts and the worship of idols.
As we look at these seven letters in the book of Revelation, it is helpful to remember two things about them: First, they are a picture of seven kinds of churches that you find in any age, in any period of history. Every church in the world today will fall into one or more of these categories of churches. We fit into one of these ourselves. The second thing is the prophetic nature of these letters. They are a preview of the entire age of the church, falling into seven periods, from the first coming of our Lord to his second appearing.
Today we come to the fourth of these churches, the church at Thyatira. Beginning in Verse 18 of Chapter 2, the Lord addresses the angel of the church. Thyatira was located about 35 miles southeast of Pergamum. It was a very small city, but a busy commercial center. It was on a major road of the Roman Empire, and, because of this, many trade unions had settled in this city. Everyone who worked there was a member of one or more trades. There were carpenters, dyers, sellers of goods, tent makers, etc. In the church at Philippi, which the Apostle Paul began, there was a woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, who came from Thyatira. It was difficult to make a living as a Christian in Thyatira without belonging to the union. This is a factor which will bear upon the interpretation of this letter, as we will see. Our Lord’s first words to this church indicate both judgment and approbation.
It is the most corrupt of the seven churches that are presented here.
But there were some good things going on in this church. Our Lord tells us what they are. “I know your deeds [i.e., your works], your love and faith, your service and your perseverance.” Those are related. Love leads to service; faith leads to perseverance. If you love God, you will serve his people. You cannot help it. It is the sign that you love that you are willing to serve. And if you have faith you will persevere; you will understand that God is in control and things will work out according to his purpose. You keep at your work; you do not quit. So here was a church that had many people that loved God and served his people. They had faith in his word, and they persevered. They helped many, and they kept it up. As others then got involved, the church grew. So the deeds, or the works, of the church were far more when this letter was written than when it first began.
It was a busy, bustling, active church with some wonderful people in it who obviously manifested love and faith, concern and care for others. It must have seemed a very attractive church. But now the blazing eyes and the burning feet go into action. We begin to learn deeper facts about the church.
Our Lord says:
“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. 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 her ways. I will strike her children dead.” Revelation 20-23a NIV)
Evidently there was in the church at Thyatira a woman who was a very dominant leader. Jesus names her “Jezebel.” That was not her name, of course, but our Lord always names people according to their character. That is why he often renames people in the Gospels. Here he chooses the name of the most evil woman in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament Jezebel was the daughter of the king of Sidon, a town in Lebanon that is often in the news these days. She was the wife of King Ahab of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and she is particularly noted for having made the worship of the god Baal popular in Israel. Baal was a fertility god, and his worship involved immoral and licentious practices. There were temple prostitutes, both male and female, associated with the worship of Baal. It was Jezebel who spread that degraded worship widely among the ten tribes of Israel until it became one of the popular religions of the day. She herself supported over 800 prophets of Baal, who ate at her table. She was the one who tried to kill Elijah after his famous encounter with 450 of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel when fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice. That mighty man of God had faced with great courage 450 false prophets, but when Jezebel got after him he ran for his life. She was also the one who murdered her neighbor Naboth because her husband wanted his vineyard. She was a ruthless, immoral, seducer of the people, and that is why Jesus selects her name for this dominant woman at Thyatira. According to the prophecy of the Old Testament, Jezebel ended her days by being thrown from her palace window into the courtyard below where the dogs came and ate her body and licked up her blood.
This Jezebel in Thyatira called herself a “prophetess.” There is nothing wrong with that in itself. But the trouble with Jezebel is that she was a false prophet. Our Lord points out what her teaching was. She taught that it was all right for Christians to indulge in sexual immorality and in idolatry.
Here is the link with the trade unions of Thyatira. In order to work in these unions, which constituted the entire business of the city, Christians had to join a union, or guild, made up of pagans for the most part. The meetings of the guilds were devoted to licentious debaucheries which were connected with the worship of erotic idols of the Greek world. Let me quote from the great British Bible scholar William Barclay. He says,
So they had to make a choice. It was difficult to live in Thyatira for this very reason. But apparently Jezebel had begun to teach that it was all right for them to go along with the requirements of the guild, that they needed to submit to the pressures of the world around in order to make a living, and that God would understand and overlook this. Her philosophy was what you often hear today: “Business is business.” If business practices collide with your Christian principles, then your principles have to go — because you have to make a living.
This whole scenario is paralleled in many churches today that accept the easy going sexuality and lack of standards that is so widespread in our society. For instance, some churches approve of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle. Many do not discipline their members when they fall into sexual immorality. Others allow pornography to go unchallenged in their midst. But notice that the Lord holds the church responsible. His accusation to them is, “You tolerate that woman Jezebel.” This is a problem that church leadership has to face in our day just as it had to face it in the 1st century.
Notice that in the letters to the church at Pergamum, and to the church at Thyatira, the Lord links sexual immorality with idolatry. We may find that strange, but actually one inevitably leads to the other. The reason is this: Fornication and adultery are both clear-cut violations of specific and explicit statements in the Word of God. Anyone who reads the Bible can see very clearly that God forbids these activities. It is wrong for believers to indulge in sexual immorality of any sort. When one does, he or she has deliberately violated the authority of God, therefore, in practice, if not in profession, God is no longer their God.
It is impossible to miss the condemnation of the Bible in these respects. If people deliberately reject the Lord’s authority, he is no longer their God. The result is, they must find another god, for it is impossible for the human spirit to live without something to live for. That is what a god is. Whatever you are living for, whatever makes life worthwhile to you, becomes your god. It may be the god of pleasure, even sexual pleasure. It may be the god of wealth. It may be the god of power, a lust for power and ambition. It may be the search for fame. The point that is being made here is that wherever you work is the place of greatest temptation in this regard.
The punishment that our Lord assesses against this teaching reflects the sickness that idolatry and immorality always bring. There are three parties involved: First, there is Jezebel herself. Jesus says: “I will cast her on a bed of suffering.” There is a note of irony or sarcasm there. He is saying, in effect, “She likes beds, so I will give her one, but it will prove to be a bed of agonizing pain and hurt.” It would constitute her only chance to realize what was happening to her, and lead her to change. Then there is another group: “I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely [literally, “I will give them great affliction”] unless they repent of her ways.” Those who commit adultery with her are those who practice, as she did, immorality and the consequent idolatry. The suffering that he refers to, the intense suffering or affliction, is a reference very likely to sexual diseases. What invariably accompanies immorality? Some form of sexual disease. Gonorrhea and syphilis were well-known and widespread in the ancient world. Today, of course, we have the additional plague of AIDS that results largely from sexual immorality. Anybody who has watched, as I have recently, someone dying of AIDS knows what a terrible, painful thing it is, both emotionally and physically. There was still a third group. The Lord says, “I will strike her children with death.” Children represent those who not only practice immorality but who teach it as well, as Jezebel was doing. The “death,” I think, refers to spiritual death, i.e., what is called in the letter to the church at Pergamum “the second death,” the terrible destruction of the lake of fire described in Chapters 20 and 21 of this book. It is a commitment to evil that makes repentance difficult.
But notice the good news here: “unless they repent of her ways.” Our Lord always gives an opportunity for repentance. I have often thought that natural disasters — earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, etc. — are opportunities being given men to think again, to stop and look at what we are doing, and to change our ways. It is opportunity to repent, a slap in the face that says, wake up! “But,” Jesus says, “she was unwilling.” And so the judgment must come. The impact of that judgment is given in verse 23:
“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.” (Revelation 2:23b NIV)
The result of judgment and discipline within the church is that the church is purified, strengthened, and helped. People begin to take note of evil tendencies and become careful not to drift into the pattern of society around. They are willing to stand against the tide or swim against the current. That is what needed to happen in Thyatira. And it happens in PBC today. In those rare times that we have had to take severe disciplinary action against some member of the congregation because of sexual immorality, the result has always been a purifying of people’s lives, a willingness to examine the morals of the day, and an increased understanding of the importance of being pure in these areas.
BRIEF ON THYATIRA
Thyatira was an inland city located on a major trade route. It was a commercial center with many trade guilds, and was the home of a military garrison. Its patron deity was a warrior goddess. To participate in the local economy would have required membership in trade guilds that sponsored idolatrous annual festivals—thus putting pressure on Christians to compromise to fit in. The Thyatira era appears to stretch from about the 11th century to the 16th century, including the Reformation and Counter-Reformation periods when many left the established Roman Church. During this time, in central and southern Europe, we find groups of Christians who believed in the Sabbath, some of the Holy Days, tithing, adult baptism and the dietary laws, and rejected doctrines of the Trinity, immortal soul, purgatory, and the popularized concepts of heaven and hell. However, over time and under the pressure of Counter-Reformation forces, many drifted back into prevailing practices by sitting in Sunday services, observing pagan holidays and serving in armies to avoid persecution. Many suffered and died as a result, as we see from the history of the Waldenses.
The lesson of Thyatira is blunt: Do not pretend to go along with false teachings for appearance’s sake—do not compromise the Truth, do not go back into ways you have been called out of or you will suffer tribulation. Scripture contains very graphic warnings about this (see Deuteronomy 12:29–31; Jeremiah 10:2; 2 Corinthians 6:14–18; 2 Peter 2:18–22). We are specifically told that at the end of the age, many professing Christians will be “deluded” into accepting false but fashionable religious beliefs, because they did not know the Truth, or were willing to compromise the Truth they once knew (2 Thessalonians 2:1–13). Today, as many who once attended the Church of God are returning to their former beliefs, Paul’s message rings clear, to “stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Spiritual compromise leads to spiritual corruption. It happened before, it is happening today—and we need to be alert!