The Letter to the Church at Thyatira (2:18-29)
Thyatira was the least known, least remarkable, and least important of the seven cities to receive a letter from the Lord. 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: 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 (see v. 19 below). [It was from Thyatira that Lydia had come (see Acts 16:11-15).
It may be that the reference to Jesus as one with “eyes like a flame of fire” and “feet” like “burnished bronze” is an allusion to the fiery furnace of Daniel 3 into which his three friends 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 God(s).”
This is an encouraging word of commendation. Among the “deeds” or “works” that Jesus knows are:
Perhaps the best thing said of them is that their deeds “of late are greater than at first” (v. 19b). In other words, the church in Thyatira was a growing church, not so much in terms of size as 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. We may therefore add 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.
It is tragic, however, after having read of the splendid qualities in Thyatira, to read farther and discover that moral compromise was present in the church. As Stott said,
“In that fair field a poisonous weed was being allowed to luxuriate. In that healthy body a malignant cancer had begun to form. An enemy was being harboured in the midst of the fellowship” (71).
Here we see the similarity between Thyatira and Pergamum and their joint dissimilarity with Ephesus. The Ephesians could not bear the presence of falsehood and took no uncertain steps in ridding the cancerous error from their assembly. But as noted earlier, it was done at the expense of love. Not so with Thyatira. While abounding in love they had lost their sensitivity to error and had compromised the glorious truths of both doctrinal and moral uprightness. The exact nature of the heresy in Thyatira was wrapped up in the person and practices of one whom Jesus calls “Jezebel.” Several suggestions have been made as to her identity.
(1) Those who find in the seven letters a prophetic outline of the history of the church seek to identify the church of Thyatira with the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. One commentator has made this interesting link:
“During this period (i.e., the Middle Ages) also there began that exaltation of Mary the mother of our Lord which has tended to exalt her to the plane of a female deity through whom intercession to God should be made, and apart from whose favor there can be no salvation. The prominence of a woman prophetess in the church at Thyatira anticipates the prominence of this unscriptural exaltation of Mary” (Walvoord, 75).
(2) Others have suggested that Jezebel is none other than Lydia herself, who, if it were true, had badly fallen from the initial spiritual heights that we read about in Acts 16.
(3) A few Greek manuscripts include the possessive pronoun “your” (or “thy”), on the basis of which it is argued that Jezebel was the wife of the senior pastor in Thyatira! But even if the pronoun is original, it probably refers to the corporate church in Thyatira since the preceding four uses of the singular “your” in vv. 19-20 clearly do so.
(4) Jezebel may be a veiled reference to the pagan prophetess Sibyl Sambathe, for whom a shrine had been built just outside the walls of the city. Such is doubtful, however, and for two reasons: first, she is spoken of in rather definite terms, implying that a distinct historical personality is in mind and not merely a shrine to a pagan goddess; and second, the text suggests that the individual was actually a member of the church (externally, at any rate) of Thyatira and under the jurisdiction and authority of its leaders.
(5) The most likely interpretation is that, in view of the opportunity granted to her for repentance, Jezebel was a female member of the church who was promoting destructive heresies and leading many into moral compromise. [By the way, note that Jesus envisions the possibility of his own “bond-servants” committing these horrific sins. What theological conclusions might one draw from this?] She was a real person, but the name “Jezebel” is probably symbolic. Note the parallel in the letter to Pergamum in which the Nicolaitans are subsumed under the name of an OT figure: Balaam. The name “Jezebel” had, in fact, become proverbial for wickedness. Thus, what is meant is that this disreputable, so-called “prophetess” was as wicked and dangerous an influence in Thyatira as ‘Jezebel’ had been to Israel in the OT. Note also that she “calls herself a prophetess” (v. 20). It’s uncertain whether this was merely her own claim or she actually had a “prophetic” gift. Is there any possibility that she was a born-again believer or are her behavior and beliefs an indication that whatever claims she made to being saved and prophetically gifted were spurious?
According to 1 Kings 16:31, Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians, who married Ahab, king of Israel. Largely because of her influence in seeking to combine the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Baal, it is said of her husband that he “did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him” (1 Kings 16:33). Jezebel was responsible for the killing of Naboth and confiscation of his vineyard for her husband (1 Kings 21:1-6). She sought the death of all the prophets of Israel (1 Kings 18:4; 2 Kings 9) and even came close to killing Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-3). Her death came as a result of being thrown from a window where she was then trampled by a horse. When an attempt was made to recover her body for burial, it was discovered that the only thing left was her skull, her feet, and the palms of her hands. According to 2 Kings 9:36-37, dogs had eaten her flesh, in fulfillment of a prophetic word from Elijah:
“And he said, ‘This is the word of the Lord, which He spoke by His servant Elijah the Tishbite, saying, “In the property of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel; and the corpse of Jezebel shall be as dung on the face of the field in the property of Jezreel, so they cannot say, ‘This is Jezebel.’”’”
Although the first Jezebel had been dead for over 1,000 years, her spirit had, as it were, found new life in this woman of Thyatira! Aune suggests that she might have been the leader or hostess of a house-church in the city (1:203). But what did she advocate that led to her being labeled with this horrid name? It is likely that she had exploited the commercial prosperity of Thyatira to justify and to subsidize her immorality and that of her followers. Leon Morris explains:
“The strong trade guilds in this city would have made it very difficult for any Christian to earn his living without belonging to a guild. But membership involved attendance at guild banquets, and this in turn meant eating meat which had first been sacrificed to an idol. . . . That these meals all too readily degenerated into sexual looseness made matters worse. But we can understand that some Christians would welcome a heresy of this type. It enabled them to maintain a Christian profession while countenancing and even engaging in immoral heathen revels” (71).
The complaint of the Lord lies in the unhealthy degree of toleration which was granted this woman. When it is said, “you tolerate the woman Jezebel,” the implication is that the church in general did not accept her teaching nor adopt her lifestyle. But the subsequent mention of her “lovers” and children in v. 22 indicates that a number in the community did so. These would have formed a distinct group within the church, and the church as a whole was content for them to remain.
Whereas it is probable that one individual lady is in view, others have suggested that the reference to “the woman” and “her children” sounds strangely similar to the phrase “the elect lady and her children” in 2 John 1. In 2 John this refers to the church community as a whole and to the individuals who are each a part of it. Perhaps, then, “Jezebel” is not a single person but a collective reference to a group of false prophets and prophetesses in Thyatira.
These words of Jesus may indicate a definite time in the past when through some means, whether a prophetic word or direct encounter or perhaps through John, he issued this woman a warning. Whatever the case, the culpability of the false prophetess is evident. She was “unwilling” to repent, indicating that she was aware of what was at issue and chose voluntarily to remain in her sin.
The nature and extent of the judgment that will befall her and those who embrace her lifestyle is difficult to determine. Several things are to be noted.
Jezebel herself will be cast “upon a bed of sickness” (v. 22a). This is most likely a reference to personal sickness, disease, or physical affliction of some sort, as was the case with the Corinthians who had persistently abused the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11:30-32.
Those “who commit adultery with her” will suffer great tribulation. This “adultery” is probably not sexual in nature but metaphorical for spiritual unfaithfulness or idolatry (see the comments on 2:14; also, since there were surely at least some female followers of Jezebel, the “adultery” here is likely not literal). They must repent of “her” deeds, i.e., since they have joined “with her” in this sin, to repent of what she did is to repent of what they, too, did. It would also appear that any possibility of Jezebel “repenting” at this stage is precluded.
The fact that they are called her “children” does not mean they are the actual physical progeny of her supposedly many sexual infidelities. They are, rather, “those who have so unreservedly embraced the antinomian doctrines of their spiritual mother that they are best described as younger members of her family” (Mounce, 104). In other words, “those who commit adultery with her” (v. 22) and her “children” (v. 23) are the same people.
The precise form of judgment is unstated. The text literally says, “I will kill with death,” i.e., a proverbial statement that means “to slay utterly”.
This judgment is designed to reveal Jesus as the one from whom no one can hide anything! He not only knows their (and our) deeds, he also knows the “mind” (lit., kidneys) and “heart,” i.e., thoughts, motives, fears, intentions, reasons, etc. This description of Jesus as “He who searches the minds and hearts” is also an allusion back to his description in v. 18 as the one who “has eyes like a flame of fire.” See esp. Jer. 17:10. The significance of this latter text is that it is Yahweh in view, yet here in Revelation it is applied to Jesus!
Christ’s words of advice to the faithful godly remnant in Thyatira are found here. Four things are said to them.
First, they are described as those “who do not hold this teaching,” i.e., the teaching of Jezebel. Not only do they not embrace the doctrines she espouses but neither do they practice her wicked ways. As for the precise nature of her teachings (v. 20), see the previous lesson and the comments on 2:14.
Second, they are described as those “who have not known the deep things of Satan, as they call them.” There are two options concerning the meaning of this statement. It may be a sarcastic reversal of their claims. They claim to know “deep [spiritual] things” when in fact what they know comes from and concerns the devil himself. In other words, the phrase “of Satan” is a sarcastic addition by Jesus designed to tell the faithful in Thyatira the true nature of their ideas and experience. Those of Jezebel may actually have used the words “of God” which Jesus (or John) deliberately alters to make the point.
Others suggest that the “deep things of Satan” is a reference to their insistence that in order to appreciate fully the depths of grace and of God (cf. 1 Cor. 2:10) one must first plumb the depths of evil and of Satan (see Deut. 32:15-22). They would claim that, because of their spiritual maturity and superiority, they need fear nothing from the enemy. On the other hand, the phrase “as they call them” might be an instance in which the third person plural is used without a subject to express an impersonal idea. Thus the phrase “as they say” would not refer to anyone involved in the conflict at Thyatira but would merely convey an impersonal passive idea – “the deep things of Satan, as it is said (by many),” the “deep things” referring to a well-known expression for such teaching which Jesus picks up to describe the situation in Thyatira.
Third, Jesus promises not to place any “other burden” on them. Cf. Acts 15:28.
Fourth, he encourages them to “hold fast” they have until he comes (a reference to the Second Advent, most likely). In a word, persevere in that which you have already received. It is interesting to note that Jesus believed progress in new things (v. 19) is compatible with perseverance in the old things (v. 25).
The promise is directed to those who “overcome” and who “keep” the “deeds” of Jesus “until the end.” Note three things.
(1) The person who “overcomes” is also the person who is persecuted, thrown in prison, the person who suffers and even dies! Clearly, Jesus was operating with an ironical notion of “overcoming”. What appears to the world as defeat and humiliation is for the Christian an entrance into life and exaltation! See Rev. 5:5-6; 12:11; 15:2; 17:14.
(2) This is the only place in Revelation that we find the phrase “my works/deeds.” How does one keep “works”? One normally keeps or obeys instruction, but not works. Most likely “keeping my works” here refers to the works that have been commanded or taught by Jesus.
(3) The reference to “works”/”deeds” in vv. 19, 23, and 26 is important. The works by which we cannot be justified are nevertheless the works by which we will be judged. Works are never the means or grounds of our salvation, but they are surely the evidence thereof, and thus constitute an excellent basis for judgment.
The promise is two-fold.
The promise is of co-regency with Christ. See Psalm 2; 1 Cor. 6:2-3; Mt. 25:21,23; Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:4. We are not merely those over whom Christ will rule but those with whom Christ will rule. Exactly how we share in his reign is not stated. Who are the “nations” over whom we will rule?
The promise is also that the overcomer will receive “the morning star” (v. 28). Is this Jesus himself? Possibly (see 22:16). But it is also possible that Rev. 1:20 should be seen as parallel with this statement. There the seven stars are a symbol of sovereignty over the world which Jesus has bestowed on his churches. The “morning star” is generally regarded as referring to Venus (although technically a planet), which itself was an ancient symbol for sovereignty. In Roman times, notes Beasley-Murray,
“it was more specifically the symbol of victory and sovereignty, for which reason Roman generals owned their loyalty to Venus by erecting temples in her honour . . . and Caesar’s legions carried her sign on their standards. . . . If then the morning star was the sign of conquest and rule over the nations, this element in the promise to the conqueror strengthens the statement that has gone before. It embodies in symbol the prophecy already cited from the psalmist. The conqueror is therefore doubly assured of his participation with Christ in the glory of his kingdom” (94-95).