Of the messages that Jesus sent to the seven churches, the message to the church in Thyatira was the longest. Perhaps this is because the church was flourishing in an extraordinary manner and yet there was a serious but unrecognized danger residing within which threatened the church’s very existence and testimony. The warning that Jesus gave to the church was certainly not restricted to those living in that era. If anything, that same warning is more applicable to us than ever before.
Let us begin this short study with a consideration of the city of Thyatira and the church located there. As is usual with Jesus’ addresses to the churches, the names mentioned and the locations referred to have significance beyond just the obvious.
The name Thyatira means “unceasing sacrifice.” Located some 75 kilometers (42 miles) southwest of Pergamos on the commercial route between Pergamos and Laodicea, Thyatira had the unfortunate role of being a city which was sometimes “sacrificed” for the sake of Pergamos. Invading armies would first have to attack and capture Thyatira in order to advance to Pergamos (the provincial capital), giving the latter time to prepare a defense.
According to the prophetic theory of the seven churches of Asia in which each church corresponds to a distinctive time period, Thyatira represents the centuries from approximately 600 to 1500. These were the years when the church was under the domination of the developing Roman Catholic Church. A key doctrine of Catholicism is, of course, the Mass. This is a supposed bloodless re-sacrifice of Christ. Thus the meaning of Thyatira’s name also has clear significance to the period which it represents.
In order to understand Jesus’ message to the Christians of Thyatira it is helpful to know that the city’s economy was based on a thriving trade in dyed wool as well as various other industries. The Bible makes mention of Lydia, whom Paul and Timothy met during the journeys in Europe. Lydia is described as “a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, (who) worshipped God (and who) heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul” (Acts 16:14). Thyatira was particularly known for its production of purple cloth. The dye was obtained from plant roots and the blood of a small marine snail.
Besides the trade in dyed goods, Thyatira was home to several other industries, each having a related workers’ guild. Association with a guild may have been a virtual necessity in order to find satisfactory employment in Thyatira. Unfortunately, association in the guild required participation in religious practices dedicated to false gods. This naturally posed a dilemma for the Christians and is the basis for Jesus’ message.
Little is known about the Thyratiran church itself. Some feel that it had its beginnings with Lydia. Others believe it was the result of evangelistic efforts from Ephesus or one of the other nearby cities. Perhaps the apostle Paul himself had founded the church (although unmentioned in the book of Acts). Regardless of the means of establishing the church, the group of Christians in Thyatira was flourishing and active. For this, Christ heartily commends them.
In commending the Thyatiran Christians, Jesus first tells them who it is who is addressing them. He is the “Son of God” (a clear reference to His divinity), the One who has eyes like a flame of fire (an allusion to His ability to see both the works of their hands as well as the motives of their hearts) and the One with feet like brass (referring, probably, to His role as judge). The Lord’s description of Himself may be summarized in that He is the omniscient God who both knows their situation as well as being their Judge. And so He is to us as well.
Jesus commends the Christians in Thyatira for several notable things. They were busy in good deeds. They served others. They were motivated by love. They were faithful. In addition to all the above, they were growing in their work and service.
The latter point perhaps deserves more emphasis. It is possible for a Christian to have a good grasp of the Bible’s teachings, to have been active for years in serving and helping in the church, to have performed all tasks to which he was assigned—and still, that is not enough. The Christian can never rest on his laurels. He must be constantly growing and depending more and more on the grace of Christ. This the Thyatiran Christians were doing. Yet in the midst of all these positives, there was one area of utmost concern in the eyes of the Lord. There was a cancer within the church.
The Lord solemnly warns the Thyatiran believers about a woman named Jezebel who was in their midst. Most certainly Jezebel was not the woman’s actual name but rather a symbolic reference to one of the most infamous individuals in Bible history. There are several similarities between the “prophetess” in Thyatira who was corrupting the church and the wicked woman who corrupted Israel.
The Jezebel of Old Testament times was a Gentile princess who married King Ahab of Israel. Her name means “chaste” but her true character was far from that. Jezebel had a domineering personality and tacitly ruled the kingdom. She introduced Baal worship into the nation and eventually forced the true servants of God into hiding. Baal worship included sexual acts and fornication. As a result of Jezebel’s many iniquities, a repugnant death was prophesied concerning her (dogs licking up her blood).
The woman in Thyatira was leading at least some of the Christians into a similarly sinful lifestyle. Although her precise methods are unknown a reasonable deduction may be made based upon the comparison to Jezebel as well as known facts concerning the background of Thyatira.
As mentioned, there were many trade guilds in the city. These trade guilds had regular meetings in the temples of the various pagan deities. To commence the assembly, an offering of animal sacrifice was made to the god. This offering, however, usually consisted of only a portion of the animal; the rest would be consumed during the course of the meeting. Additionally, wine would flow freely and, in accord with pagan practices, sexual immorality would soon ensue.
But what about the Christians who had been saved while serving in the guilds? Apparently, the woman had “prophesized” (for she was called a prophetess) that the Lord permitted participation in those pagan events. Yet, that was hardly the case. In verse 20, Jesus specifically condemns sexual immorality and partaking of sacrifices made to idols. The Christians, at least some of them, were living up to the name of the city and offering continual sacrifices, worshipping both the pagan gods as well as the true God. And that is something God will not tolerate.
God gave the woman time to repent of her prophecies and teachings, but she did not. As a result, she was to be cast into a sickbed. Just as it had been prophesized of Jezebel that she would suffer an ignominious death, so it is with the woman of Thyatira.
At this point, we must turn to the central teaching of Jesus’ message to the Thyratirans. The Christians (being encouraged by the woman) could easily have justified their involvement in the pagan ceremonies. Participation was mandatory if they wanted to keep their jobs. After all, they had to earn a living for themselves and their families. And if they refused and were cast out on the streets, they would become dependents of the church instead of contributors to it. Yes, it was easy to justify a sinful practice.
About a century later, Tertullian the famous Christian apologist wrote a treaty called “On Idolatry” in which he addressed this very issue. He spoke of those Christians whose job was making idols and who defended themselves by saying that they had to earn a living. Tertullian’s response was “do you have to live? (Vivere ergo habeas)”
In our own days, there is a Jezebel spirit which has infiltrated many churches. Sinful practices such as abortion and homosexuality are no longer condemned. Promiscuity before marriage is regarded by many as normal. Holiness and righteousness are denounced as puritanical and old-fashioned. Sadly, the 21st-century Christian church is much like Thyatira.
Notice that Jesus’ warning to those who follow the counsel of Jezebel is that they will be killed with death. We may ask, what other kinds of killing is there? But I believe the death mentioned by Jesus means the Second Death, i.e. eternal separation from God. This, of course, applies to those who have never known Christ. Yet separation in the sense of broken fellowship with Him is possible even for Christians. There is no sadder state for the child of God than to be out of fellowship with the One who is the very source of life.
To those who didn’t compromise but would “hold fast till (He) comes,” Jesus promised the right to rule with Him. Perhaps for the moment the Thyatiran Christians felt oppressed and at the mercy of those over them, but Jesus promised them that they would rule with the very Lord of lords. He promised them that He would give them the bright and morning star. This is none other than Jesus Himself (Revelation 22:16). What a wonderful promise is given to the believer who remains steadfast in his walk with the Lord in spite of corruptions both outside and inside the church. Jesus says to him in effect, “You are mine.”