The Letter to the Church in Thyatira

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In the opening pages of Revelation, our Lord introduces Himself as heaven’s holy warrior (1:12–20) who would prepare His people to overcome their enemies (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21) by exhorting them to hear what the Spirit has to say in the letters He writes to seven churches. Strikingly, though He writes each letter to a particular church, Christ insists that each be heard by all (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22), effectively making each one an “open letter” for all believers to read. What, then, does Christ want us to learn from His letter to the church at Thyatira? To hear that lesson we have to examine key particulars of the letter that Christ wrote to the Christians there.

Most importantly, Christ’s message to the Christians at Thyatira is a warning that they are in grave spiritual danger. But how can this be? This church, unlike the one at Ephesus, has not lost its first love (2:4–5) but has grown in love and faith with service and endurance (2:19). Surely, they are secure. However, with those virtues, a vice cohabits. In other words, the risk is not coming from outside the church: just as it was at Laodicea, persecution by imperial Rome poses no threat to Thyatira’s wellbeing. Instead, the danger is coming from within. The church is tolerating the presence of a false prophetess and her disciples (2:20). Indeed, the influence of this bad tree and its bad fruit (Matt. 7:15–20) is compromising Thyatira’s professed betrothal to Christ (see 2 Cor. 11:2–3). We understand better the threat posed by these wolves when we analyze the background of Thyatira.

Though by worldly standards Thyatira was the least known of Revelation’s seven cities, it was distinctive for the large number of trade guilds (related especially to textiles and armor) that prospered there. The influence of these unions on civic life was considerable. Roughly every month they sponsored common meals for their members, feasts that involved worship of the Roman emperor with local patron deities and, frequently, sexual immorality. Not to accommodate oneself to these pagan practices placed one at significant economic risk, particularly if one wanted to get ahead in business and society.

It would have been one thing at Thyatira for Christians in the trades (such as Lydia, Acts 16:14) to be invited to these feasts by coworkers outside the church; it would have been another thing for a leader in the church to approve of Christians accepting those invitations. Imagine these tempting words: “You know the ‘deep things’ (Rev. 2:24) at work here. You know that ‘idols are nothing’ (1 Cor. 8:4); you know that ‘all things are lawful’ for you (6:12). So, go to the feast; eat, drink, and be merry! You have to make a living, don’t you?” No wonder the Lord of the church called the false prophetess at Thyatira by the derogatory moniker “Jezebel.” In Israel, that Gentile queen of evil King Ahab had persecuted God’s prophets and promoted the typically sexually unrestrained worship of Baal (1 Kings 16:31–33; 18:4; 21:25; 2 Kings 9:22). The parallels between Israel and Thyatira are obvious.

The idolatry and immorality at Thyatira, however, expose even more about the false prophetess and her disciples. If Jezebel of Thyatira isn’t the model for John’s portrait of Madam Babylon in Revelation 17, she is at least a local embodiment of all that that prostitute stood for. Like a daughter emulating her mother, Jezebel’s enticements echo Babylon’s denials of the one, true God and His righteousness, denials incarnated in the social systems of the present evil age. Like Babylon, Jezebel makes her children-followers complicit in the harlotries of this world, body and soul. And at the heart of those harlotries is the lure of economic security. To follow Jezebel, then, is to share earthly Babylon’s identity; to renounce her is to share heavenly Jerusalem’s identity. 

But Christ would give us still more insight into the choice before Thyatira and before us. With a wisdom surpassing Solomon’s, He would have the churches discern their destiny from their likeness to their spiritual mother. Those He identifies as the unrepentant prophetess and her children He will punish with suffering and death in this age (Rev. 2:22–23); those He identifies as His repentant and steadfast people (vv. 24–25) He will reward with a share of royal authority to crush their enemies at the end of this age (vv. 26–28). The lesson for Thyatira and for us is plain: to share a mother’s identity is to share her destiny.

Do we have ears to hear Christ’s message to Thyatira? Has the lure of economic security led our churches to tolerate false teaching? Our Protestant forebears saw their church turn into a harlot liable to Christ’s judgment. So they renounced Jezebel; they “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also,” and the Reformation followed. Let us also repent of our promiscuous desire for economic security in this Babylonian world and end our affairs with teachers who would tempt us away from the holy safety of Jerusalem above and the world to come. 

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