Consider this challenge that I regularly put to myself and now put to you. Recall to mind the early days of your Christian life, perhaps the first year or so after your conversion. Do you remember the zeal for God and fascination with all things biblical you felt in the wake of saving grace? Think back on your evangelistic zeal and the courage you displayed in sharing your faith with unsaved family members and friends. Think back on the time and energy expended in service and prayer and ministry in the local church. Is it fresh in your mind? Got the picture?
Now, compare it with where you are today. Has your affection for God’s people grown cold? Are you filled with doubts and fears rather than faith and confidence? Have you found excuses not to teach that Sunday School class or participate in the church choir? Do you find yourself rationalizing your absence from corporate worship or nurturing bitterness toward another believer who harmed you?
I’m the first to acknowledge that it’s a challenge I’d rather not accept. It’s painful and convicting to compare where I was with where I am, where I used to be with where I ought to be in my Christian growth.
Some who profess faith in Christ aren’t in the least unnerved by this challenge. They’re content with the spiritual status quo. In fact, the only thing that irritates them is being challenged to press on to greater conformity to Christ and more fervent love for his people. “Christianity is all about getting saved and escaping the horror of hell,” so they say. “I’m happy where I am in life. Don’t pressure me with a call to greater service. I’ve done my fair share of religious duties. My time card’s been punched and I’d really like to be left alone to work on my golf game.”
If that’s an exaggeration of what professing Christians actually say, it’s spot on target with how they actually live. They walked the aisle. They signed the card. They prayed the prayer. What more do you expect? Well, a lot more, actually.
The Christians who lived in ancient Thyatira would never have understood that mentality. In fact, it’s the one thing for which Jesus praised them. Having been born again, they refused to coast. Their early diligence in ministry and mercy toward others had only increased with time. Hardship hadn’t dimmed their faith. Familiarity with Christ had certainly not bred contempt. Here is what Jesus said to them:
“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first” (Revelation 2:18-19). The emphasis is mine, but only because it is assuredly a point of emphasis from our Lord.
Thyatira was the least known, least remarkable, and least important of the seven cities to receive a letter from the Lord (perhaps its only claim to fame was that Lydia had lived there; see Acts 16:11-15). Yet the letter addressed to it is the longest and most difficult to interpret. The obscurity of the letter and the enigmatic character of certain words and phrases are largely due to the fact that background information on the history of Thyatira, specifically the cultural conditions and circumstances in the first century, is almost wholly lacking. Its spiritual condition, on the other hand, is similar to that of Pergamum. Although they are commended for increase in growth and service, there is toleration of falsehood and moral compromise in their midst.
As noted, Thyatira was a comparatively unimportant city. It had no significant military, political, or administrative responsibilities, and if it is to be noted for anything it is its commercial enterprises. It was a center for manufacturing and marketing and its most distinguishing characteristic was the large number of trade guilds that flourished there, the existence of which posed a special problem for Christians (to be noted later). One thing is clear: by the close of the first century the church in Thyatira was both prosperous and active.
The description of Jesus as one with “eyes like a flame of fire” and “feet” like “burnished bronze” is probably an allusion to the fiery furnace of Daniel 3 into which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown. The added reference to Jesus as “the Son of God” (only here in Revelation, but 46x in the NT) confirms this, for the three Jewish men were delivered by “one like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:25).
The Thyatirans ought to be encouraged by this word of commendation. Among the “deeds” or “works” that Jesus knows are their “love and faith and service and patient endurance.” But surely the best thing said of them is that their “latter works exceed the first.” In other words, the church in Thyatira was a growing church, not so much numerically but in Christ-like qualities. They had learned that the Christian life is one of growth, progress, development, and spiritual increase. Merely maintaining the moral status quo, whether individually or corporately, is inadequate.
Thus whereas Ephesus was backsliding, Thyatira was moving forward. I think we’re justified, then, in adding this as another quality of the church that Jesus approves: to the doctrinal orthodoxy of Ephesus, the suffering for righteousness’ sake of Smyrna, the love of Pergamum, we now add the growth and development of Thyatira.
That’s a wonderful legacy, to be known as a church that has faithfully built on the original foundation of love, laboring in God’s grace to fan that first flame into a full-blown forest fire of affection and devotion to one another. Not only that, but their faith had increased. Their knowledge of God and his ways and the confidence it breeds had deepened and expanded. But doctrine hadn’t gone merely into their heads, but energized their hands as they grew in service and sacrifice for one another. And when times got tough, and the temptation to quit grew more alluring, they persevered.
Surprisingly, though, there was something missing. Some in Thyatira (clearly not all, as v. 24 makes clear) had grown tolerant of the “woman Jezebel” (v. 20) and her wicked ways. The fruit of this compromise had grown rotten and threatened the very life of the body as a whole. Christ simply won’t have it, as we’ll soon see.
But there is this to learn from the church in Thyatira: the Christian life is an ever-upward trek toward greater heights of holiness and love and theological understanding. Being born-again is only a beginning, not an end, an inauguration, not a consummation. Appealing to one’s initial zeal as an excuse for shifting into spiritual cruise control won’t set well with our Lord.
So, how’d you fare with the challenge? Are there signs of growth? Has love grown, or simply grown old (and cold)? Do the works of late exceed those first done?
“Lord, shatter our complacency! Disrupt our indifference! Move us off dead center! Overcome our spiritual inertia and lovingly lead us into new vistas of knowledge of you and love for your people and commitment to your kingdom! May we, by your grace, be people of whom it is said, ‘your latter works exceed the first.’ Amen.”