Revelation-Part 9

By: Dr. Robert Thomas; ©2000
Dr. Thomas explains the circumstances in Thyatira that make it a hard place for Christians to stand for their faith. What did “Jezebel” teach? And why did Jesus commend those who opposed her?



During the last three months we have been reviewing what Christ thought of the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum (Revelation 2:1-17). This month we turn to His evaluation of the one in Thyatira, a city located about forty miles southeast of Pergamum. Because of Thyatira’s situation as a communications hub, the city had grown into a commercial center with many trade guilds, in fact, more such trade organizations than existed in any other city of the area. It had guilds for wool workers, linen workers, manufacturers of outer garments, dyers, leather workers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave dealers, and bronze smiths. Compulsory membership required of those wanting to hold down one of these jobs made the guilds one of the major elements in the cultural make-up of the city.

Each guild had a guardian god that the members were compelled to honor through their attendance at regularly occurring guild festivals. They had to eat food that had been offered to the guild gods, acknowledging the food as a gift from the gods. After the feast concluded, subsequent activities at the feasts would degenerate into gross immorality in which all members were expected to participate. Living and working in this city, therefore, presented a major moral issue Christians had to face. To join a guild or not to join and to participate in the guild activities or not to participate, were options that church people had to choose between.

The message to Thyatira in Revelation 2:18-29 reflects the dilemma of believers sur­rounded by such conditions. It divides into the same seven sections as the rest of the seven messages. (1) The address comes in 2:18a and (2) the attributes of the speaker in 2:18b, in this case “the Son of God” who has “eyes as a flame of fire, and His feet . . . like gleaming bronze.” As already seen in 1:14, that description of the eyes denotes surpass­ing intelligence, and that of the feet, as seen in 1:15, moral purity circulating among the churches. (3) Jesus’ knowledge about the people included His awareness of their com­mendable love that had shown continuing progress (2:19).

Sad to say, Christ’s high praise for Thyatiran Christians yielded to censure when He came to the (4) state-of-the-church part of the message (2:20-24). Most of this extended section centers around a female named Jezebel and her followers, who had disregarded the Lord’s earlier calls to repentance. We will return to consider His estimate of this woman and the church’s spiritual status after completing a survey of the rest of the message.

Following the lengthy description of the state of the church comes (5) the promise of the Lord’s coming in 2:25, a promise that challenged the faithful at Thyatira to remain faithful. Then comes (6) the promise to the overcomer (2:25-28), a promise that is the longest of the seven overcomer promises. The message closes with (7) the command to hear what the Spirit is saying to all the churches (2:29).

Jezebel and her error

We do not know much about the woman Jezebel to whom the Lord referred in 2:20, but most probably, she was a prominent woman in that local church. By assigning her the symbolic name “Jezebel,” Jesus likened her to the infamous wife of King Ahab who tried to lure the Northern Kingdom of Israel into worshiping Baal and Astarte and into immoral behavior and magical practices (1 Kings 16:31; 18:4, 19; 2 Kings 9:22). The Jezebel of Thyatira was a woman of influence as was the wife of Ahab. Through her leadership quali­ties, hard work, and spiritual activity, she had somehow attained prominence in that city’s church as had another woman named Lydia, whom Acts 16:14 mentions. She was far removed from the godly qualities that characterized Lydia’s life, however.

What marked the Thyatiran Jezebel’s life was her claim of having the spiritual gift of proph­ecy. Acts 21:9 attributes that gift to the daughters of Philip. A prophet or prophetess in the early church received direct revelation from God that enabled him/her to give an inspired mes­sage to other members of the body of Christ. He/she was second only to the apostles in capa­bility for edifying the church (see 1 Corinthians 12:28). Unfortunately, however, the early church also had false prophets. Jezebel was one of them. She communicated what she alleged to be special revelation from God, and thereby became a self-acclaimed authoritative teacher in the church. Some accepted her claim, making her a recognized leader. The critical problem was that her leadership was causing people to go astray.

She was propagating errors similar to the two committed by the Nicolaitans: eating meat sacrificed to idols and committing fornication (compare 2:20 with 2:14-15). Jesus had already made very clear His displeasure with the works of this group (see 2:6, 14-15). In the Thyatiran environment she advocated full participation in the trade guild festivals that included eating meat sacrificed to false gods and practicing unbridled immorality. Her teaching was probably along this line: “Since an idol has no real existence (see 1 Corinthians 8:4), it’s okay for you as a Christian to play along with the simple requirements of the trade guild by participating in a common meal devoted to idols. That way you can keep your job and support your family. Those guild activities shouldn’t interfere with how you live your Christian life. They are a separate issue from your Christian behavior.”

Jezebel’s error was poison to the life of the church in which she operated. It was widely known in churches elsewhere (2:23) and had prevailed long enough to allow her to attract a group of followers whom the Lord called “her children” (2:23). Her teaching digni­fied itself as a sort of enlightened use of Christian liberty that Jesus called “deep things” (2:24; 1 Corinthians 2:10), probably because of its association with the prophetic claims of this woman. Discovering on the alleged authority of the Spirit that Christians did not need to separate themselves from heathen practices must have come as a relief to Jezebel’s “children” as they faced the issue of guild participation.

Christ’s response to Jezebel

Christ responded to this woman and her followers in strong language that corresponded to His threats against the disobedient in other churches. Because of her continuing refusal to repent, He said He would cast her with her followers into a bed of great tribulation, by which terminology He referred to the coming period of misery on earth just before His second coming (2:22). The “great tribulation” of which He spoke is the same period that He foresaw in prophe­cies uttered the week of His crucifixion (Matthew 24:21), a time of suffering unparalleled in human history. Detailed descriptions of these hardships appear in Revelation 6-19 (see Rev­elation 7:14 where the expression appears again). In other words, Jesus excluded the Jezebel team from the number who will not experience that period, a deliverance He promised to faithful believers in other churches (see, for example, 3:10).

Christ’s response to faithful believers

Thankfully, some Thyatirans had not bought into Jezebel’s “package.” In other words, they had not embraced “the deep things of Satan” (2:24). They contrasted sharply with that ungodly woman and her followers. Jesus commended this group for their faithfulness to Himself in distancing themselves from the Jezebelian teaching and behavior that she and her “children” claimed resulted from their grasp of “the deep things of God” (compare 1 Corinthians 2:10). In reality, though, the deep things were not from God, but were rather “the deep things of Satan,” according the Christ’s estimate.

The faithful in Thyatira had dared to stand against the pressure exerted by Jezebel and her group. In return, Jesus promised not to add a further burden to the faithful beyond that of putting up with further ridicule and social ostracism brought on by their daring to label fornication and eating meat sacrificed to idols as sinful activities in which Christians should have no part (Revelation 2:24). This group of loyal Christians valued their relation­ship to God more than their jobs, so they willingly risked losing their employment by refus­ing a relationship to the trade guilds.

Jesus honored their courage and told them to hold firmly to their convictions, promising His personal return to relieve them from pressure (2:25). He did not specify the imminence of that return as He did to other churches (see, for example, 3:11), but from those other messages the Thyatiran faithful knew to expect Him at any moment. The Lord honored the purity of life of believers in Thyatira, who showed the reality of their faith in Him by remain­ing loyal in the face of severe social pressure. When they stand before Him at His coming, they will receive His verdict of “well done.”

Christians of the twenty-first century will face circumstances and conditions that will test the reality of their faith in Christ just as first-century Christians at Thyatira did. May we display the same courage in standing against evil and for right living as did those faithful ones this city.

Note: For elaborations about more of the interesting details in Jesus’ message to Thyatira, see my discussion in Revelation 1-7 (Moody Press, 1992), pages 205-237. To order this volume, you may call Grace Books International at (800) GRACE15.

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