Seven Churches, Seven Cities, One Website

Interpretation of Letter to Thyatira

The person pictured as speaking to the church in this letter unequivocally identified himself as the Son of God (2:18). While this title is implied elsewhere in the book, it is only used here. As well, two closely allied titles from John’s vision in chapter 1 began the letter – the figure’s blazing eyes and feet that appear as burnished bronze (1:14-15). Christ praised the church for its love, faith, service and perseverance. The range of praise regarding Thyatira’s spiritual status was perhaps the widest given to any of the seven churches. It was the only church that is said to have improved its spiritual condition (2:19).
However, the church did need admonishment on one vital issue. The church had tolerated the teachings of a false prophetess. She is introduced only by a metaphorical name – Jezebel. Her teaching is defined in the same way as the teaching of Balaam in the church at Pergamum (2:14). Jezebel, says Christ, "Misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols" (2:20). A parallel to the evil queen of Ahab was obviously intended (1 Kings 16:29; 2 Kings 9:30). Both the original Jezebel and this unidentified prophetess threatened to destroy the true worship of God among his people.

We should note that the original Jezebel’s sin was leading Israel into idolatry. She was not accused in the Old Testament of leading a sexually immoral life. Rather, her sin was in teaching others to follow religious immorality and faithlessness to the Lord (2 Kings 9:22).

This indicates that we can take the expressions of censure – "eating food sacrificed to idols" and "committing adultery" – in a figurative sense to mean idolatry. We should also be reminded that the Old Testament presented idolatry, apostasy and infidelity to God in terms of sexual metaphors – as sexual immorality, fornication, adultery and prostitution (Exodus 34:15, 16; Deuteronomy 31:16; Jeremiah 3:6; Ezekiel 23:19; Hosea 9:1). As well, John used adultery as a metaphor of idolatry elsewhere in Revelation (17:2; 18:3).

Specifically, in the church at Thyatira, this Jezebel probably counseled accommodation with the world. Robert H. Mounce says, "The fornication of which Jezebel was not willing to repent was her adulterous alliance with the pagan environment" (The Book of Revelation, p. 104).

Her theology as spread by her counterparts in the Thyatira church would be especially attractive, in that members wrestled with the matter of participation in workers’ guilds. To reject guild membership would cause one to suffer economic deprivation. However, to be part of a guild required participation in its pagan religious festivities. The temptation to compromise one’s Christian beliefs must have been strong for many church members. Robert H. Mounce explains:

"In a city whose economic life was dominated by trade guilds in which pagan religious practices had become criteria for membership, the Christian convert would be faced with the problem of compromising his stand at least enough to allow participation in a common meal dedicated to some pagan deity. To reject this accommodation could mean social isolation and economic hardship." The Book of Revelation, p. 103)

To be a member of a guild almost certainly would have meant participating in religious idolatry, immorality and debauchery. Thus, there is a dual meaning to the accusation that the Jezebel party practice "sexual immorality." To summarize, then, Revelation’s "Jezebel" (as well as "Balaam" and probably the Nicolaitans) suggested the Christian could come to terms with the world and still be faithful to Christ.

The Jezebel party probably would explain that "an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one" (1 Corinthians 8:4). They would have reasoned that believers need not hurt themselves economically by refusing to accept a few harmless requirements posed by trade guild membership.

"Jezebel is to be counted amongst those to whom the claims of commercial success speak more loudly than the claims of Christ," says William Barclay (The Revelation of John, volume 1, revised edition, p. 107). The Jezebel party apparently couched its teaching in strong theological wine, providing an excusing rationale that seemed to dispel any contrary arguments. Their theology is called "Satan’s so-called deep secrets" (2:24).

This phrase is usually explained in two ways. It may be an ironic twist on Jezebel’s own claim. Her followers may have claimed to be more spiritually sophisticated. They may have distorted Paul’s teaching, claiming to understand God’s will more deeply than the "self-righteous" majority who thought it ungodly to pay homage to the emperor as a god and to engage in debauchery (1 Corinthians 8:4; Romans 14:17). But Revelation says that the Jezebel party is the one that has fallen into the depths of a spiritual pit Satan has dug.

Another explanation for "Satan’s deep secrets" is that Jezebel, like the later Gnostics, taught that only by descending into the depths of evil could one appreciate the heights of God’s grace. Paul had also been forced to refute a similar idea in the church at Rome (Romans 6:1).

A majority of the church at Thyatira did not buy Jezebel’s reasoning. However, the church still apparently allowed this group’s teaching to continue within its midst. It had the "Corinthian disease" which tolerated sin in the church, possibly in the misguided interest of being big-minded (1 Corinthians 5:1-7).

The issue has more than historical interest. It concerns us vitally. Says Leon Morris: "Every generation of Christians must face the question, ‘How far should I accept and adopt contemporary standards and practices?’ On the one hand, Christians must not deny the faith. On the other, they must not deny their membership of society" (Revelation, revised edition, p. 71).

Christ had been patient, hoping for a change of heart in the Jezebel faction (2:21). But the group had refused to repent of their teachings. Thus, the moment of judgment had arrived. Jesus warned that he would cast the compromisers on "a bed of suffering...unless they repent" (2:22). The Greek word here is simply "bed." The translators have caught the Old Testament idea behind being on a bed. It meant to be sick or injured (Exodus 21:18). To be cast on a bed would mean someone had inflicted suffering upon you.

The Jezebel faction – if they remained unrepentant – would become an object lesson and be brought to justice, so to speak. The fact that God is a God of justice as well as mercy – that being a Christian is serious business – would become evident to "all the churches" (2:23). Here is another indication that the message to each church applied to all seven. The majority at Thyatira who did not hold to this "gospel of expediency" was counseled to hold on to their spiritual understanding (2:24). They would have no other "burden" imposed on them.Promise to Thyatira (2:24-28)

The church members at Thyatira were encouraged to continue in the faith – "until I come" (2:25). They were to be overcomers and do Christ’s will to the end. "This is the nearest we have in the seven letters to a definition of the conqueror," says G. R. Beasley-Murray. "He holds fast the traditions of faith and life delivered to the Church til the coming of Christ (v. 25) and he keeps Christ’s works till the end (v. 26) – whether that ‘end’ be the Lord’s parousia or his own death" (Revelation, p. 93).

The promise of salvation is described as "authority over the nations" (2:26). The overcomer will "rule them with an iron scepter" and "he will dash them to pieces like pottery" (2:27). These statements were taken from Psalm 2:9.

Some scholars feel that the original wording gives a somewhat different meaning than the English. Ruling should be understood more in the sense of shepherding. Wielding an iron scepter should be seen more in the context of a shepherd’s staff or club, used firmly but with tender loving care. If so, there is always the problem of how to understand the companion phrase, "…he will dash them to pieces like pottery" (2:27). The sheep are given guidance; the enemies are shattered.

Whatever the case, the meaning is clear. The now powerless church existing under human government will have power over the nations under Christ. The saints will inherit the earth, as Christ said (Matthew 5:55). And they would judge the world in whatever way that "judging" is to be understood (1 Corinthians 6:2).

The church at Thyatira was also promised the "morning star" (2:28). Several explanations have been offered for this symbol. Perhaps Christ is in view here, if we are guided by his symbolic self-description at the end of Revelation: "I, Jesus...[am] the bright Morning Star" (22:16). To "have" Jesus as the Morning Star would mean to be in his glorious presence – to be with him. This would explain the promise that in the resurrection the saints glorified will be with Christ, wherever he is (John 14:3).