Seven Letter to Seven Churches: The Letter to Thyatira
Sermon: Seven Letters to Seven Churches: The Letter to Thyatira Text: Revelation 2:18-29
Today we continue our series Seven Letters to Seven Churches. As we look at this collection of letters in the book of Revelation, it is helpful to remember that they are pictures of every church we have ever known. Every church in the world today, including Morningside, looks like one of these churches or maybe a composite of these churches. They serve as an example of the way the church functions. They also serve as an example of the way the church dysfunctions, as you see clearly revealed in these letters.
Let’s review the churches we have studied thus far in this series. The church in Ephesus suffered the loss of their first love, the love for God. They had also lost their joy and ability to love others. The letter to the church in Smyrna enjoined the Christians to stand firm under the intense pressure of persecution. Their beloved bishop, the elderly Polycarp, served as an example. The fact that he was a martyr showed them what it means to hold fast to faith. The church in Pergamum resembled those live oak trees along the coast of South Carolina, which can withstand all kinds of pressure from the outside, such as hurricanes and tornadoes; but they cannot endure decay from the inside. The church in Pergamum needed to regain their sense of holiness and dependence on the Word of God. These letters are practical for our time, practical for us here at Morningside. We need the advice they provide just as much as those first-century Christians did.
Today as we come to the church at Thyatira we see the longest letter of the seven. I invite you to turn in your Bible to Revelation 2:18-29. Hear now the Word of God.
18 “To the angel of the church in Thyatira write:
These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. 19 I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.
20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. 21 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 22 So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. 23 I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.
24 Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, 25 except to hold on to what you have until I come.’
26 To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations— 27 that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father. 28 I will also give that one the morning star. 29 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
The small town of Thyatira was perhaps the least significant of the cities mentioned so far. The governor, Pliny, had dismissed it as being of little importance. A Roman garrison was housed there, but its primary purpose was to protect Pergamum. Thyatira had no natural fortifications and they built no large temples in a prominent location, as some other cities did. We see little or no Caesar-worship in Thyatira.
The town was located on an important trade route. We know that carpenters, dyers of wool, sellers of goods, and even tent makers lived and did business there. We also know that the first Christian woman who was a member of the church in Philippi, Lydia, was from Thyatira. She was called a seller of purple, which meant that she sold a purple cloth from which royal garments were made. She perhaps sold the cloth used to make the emperor’s garments.
The first and only time that the book of Revelation mentions the Son of God is here in this letter. This important title leaves no doubt about Jesus’ identity. The Son of God is described as having eyes like “blazing fire,” eyes that pierce even the deepest disguises, the lies of the human heart, and the pretensions of God’s people. The feet of the Son of God are “like burnished bronze” that can trample underfoot and punish all wrong. The church in Thyatira needed to be reminded of these attributes and capabilities of the Son of God.
If we had seen this church at Thyatira we would have probably been greatly impressed. It must have been very attractive. The beginning of the letter suggests that it was thriving and growing. Every external appearance indicated a busy, bustling, active church. John tells them, “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.” This church had many people who obviously manifested the love of Christ by serving others. They had faith in God’s Word and expressed concern for many others. John writes that they had persevered and were stronger than in the beginning. As more people became involved the church grew, and their deeds were to be commended.
Something, however, was amiss in Thyatira. We begin to learn deeper facts about the church and come to that old admonition, “You cannot judge a book by its cover.” Thyatira was the most corrupt of all the churches. This corruption merited the reference to those blazing eyes and bronzed feet. John writes, “Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel who calls herself a prophet.” John does not mince words here. As I read Verses 20-23 in today’s text, you may have thought, That passage should be rated R if not X. Remember though that these stern words written here in the New Testament were inspired by the Holy Spirit and spoken by the Living Christ.
I heard the story of a fellow who owned a restaurant in a small Southern town. Customers who liked good ole country food had actually requested that he add frog legs to the menu.
He was talking about this possibility one day with a farmer friend who said, “I can get all the frog legs you want. My pond must contain at least a million. You have never heard such a racket at night in all your life.”
The restaurant owner answered, “You start catching the frogs and bringing them to me. I’ll go ahead and list them on the menu.”
On the first night when this farmer went gigging, he caught only three frogs. The next night he caught none. He returned to the restaurant and said, “I have three frogs for you.”
“Three! I’ve added frog legs to my menu. Three frogs won’t help me at all!”
“I’m so sorry. After I caught those three frogs, the pond became completely silent. Just three frogs were making all that racket.”
It is amazing how much commotion a very small group can make in the life of a church.
In the church at Thyatira just one woman was causing all the problems, and what a woman she was! Christ referred to her as Jezebel, giving her the name of the most evil woman in the Old Testament. Remember that that Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon and wife of King Ahab, wore the pants in that family. She was in control. Jezebel was particularly noted for killing the prophets of God and for setting up worship to Baal, a fertility god. She spread a degraded type of worship that involved immoral activity among the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom. She herself supported over 800 prophets of Baal.
We also remember Jezebel for the attempt she made on Elijah’s life after their famous encounter on top of Mount Carmel. Elijah was not afraid of 480 prophets of Baal, but he was afraid of Jezebel. He ran for his life when she started after him. She actually murdered her neighbor Naboth because her husband wanted his vineyard. According to the prophecy of the Old Testament, Jezebel was thrown from her palace window to the courtyard below where dogs devoured her body.
We see in the Old Testament a number of other women prophets. The four daughters of Philip, the great deacon and spirit-filled evangelist, were good prophets. The living Christ, speaking through John to the church in Thyatira, speaks against a woman in the church: “You have a Jezebel among you.” His rebuke does not stem from the fact that she is a woman. He is angered that she is an evil woman who leads people astray and acts in an immoral way. This woman named Jezebel is not offering salvation. She is speaking in deep secrets, in mysteries, in what John calls the secrets of Satan. Beware of religious experiences that rely on secrets. They only lead to further problems.
I found a limerick that seems to make sense in this situation: “A sailor on duty was frantic when he fell in the briny Atlantic. After hours at sea he was saved, you see, and hoisted aboard the Titanic.” This kind of salvation is no good.
Trouble in Thyatira also existed because of the link between the trade unions and pagan worship. A business owner basically had to belong to a trade union in order to ensure that he could make a living. Christians found it very difficult to survive in the business world if they were not part of the union, or trade guilds as they were also known. Each guild recognized its own Greek god by requiring its members to take part in the meals designed to honor the god. They were even required to take part in sacrifices to those pagan gods.
The bond between the trade unions and the worship of these gods was almost unbreakable. William Barkley describes the bond in this way:
These guilds met frequently, and they met for a common meal. Such a meal was, at least in part, a religious ceremony. It would probably meet in a heathen temple, and it would certainly begin with a libation to the gods and the meal itself would largely consist of meat offered to idols. The official position of the church meant that a Christian could not attend such a meal. This was the problem these Thyatira Christians faced. In order to make a living they had to belong to a union, but to attend the union was to become involved, or to be sorely pressured to become involved, with the worship of idols…So they had to make a choice. It was difficult for a Christian to live in Thyatira for this very reason.
Jezebel’s “solution” to the problem these Christians had was to offer, what I suppose we could say was the antinomian heresy. It goes something like this: “Salvation is just for the soul. Our physical behavior is irrelevant to our salvation experience. We only need to trust the Holy Spirit’s prompting. Freedom from the law means we can disregard the laws of God who sees no sin in a believer because we are in Christ. Therefore what we actually do makes no difference to God as long as we believe. The intention to love is all that God requires of Christians and the commands of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and other ethical parts of the Scripture can certainly be ignored as long as we do what we do in love.”
Can you see the error in that reasoning? It reminds me of the prophet Isaiah’s words: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20).
Paul had also challenged this way of thinking in his letter to the Romans when he addressed what in his day was called the libertines. Romans 6:1 begins, “What shall we say then? Shall we sin all the more so that the grace of God may abound?” Their reasoning was, “If this God of grace wants to forgive sins, we will just give Him a lot to forgive. He is certainly up to that. We can disregard all the rules and regulations because God will forgive us.” Can you see that we have come around to this error in our way of thinking?
Dr. Karl Menninger, in his book entitled Whatever Became of Sin?, said that we have started calling sin “a mistake” or “a personality flaw.” We have begun excusing sin. A very devout Methodist, Dr. Menninger said that sin is real and that when we sin the only remedy is to seek the gift of God – eternal life – through Jesus Christ our Lord (Roman 6:23).
Just as in the letter to Pergamum, John again relates the sin of adultery – the unfaithfulness to a marriage partner – to the sin of idolatry – the unfaithfulness to God. We see a reference to sexual sin in the text today. The two are often connected in Scripture as in, for example, the book of Hosea.
We must ask ourselves if we have one or more idols. We may have many possibilities. Whenever we deliberately reject the Lord’s authority, we displace Him. We put something else on the throne of God, such as pleasure, wealth, power, personal ambition, or fame. The way we invest our money and energy offers our greatest temptation in terms of idolatry.
How can we identify our personal idol? First, we can perform a self-diagnosis just by looking at the stubs in our checkbook or by going to our online banking account. We can examine how we spend our money. Matthew 6:2 tells us, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Looking at a calendar and inspecting how we spend our time and energy can quickly identify what pulls us away from the Lord.
The woman called Jezebel in the church at Thyatira and those who followed her were given the opportunity to repent. Just as the Old Testament Jezebel refused to repent, so did this group addressed in John’s letter.
Today, the first Sunday of Lent, is a time for repentance. The grace of God is not cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the cost of discipleship and the cost of grace. He says that grace, the unmerited gift of God, is free. It was, however, purchased at a very expensive price. We dare not cheapen grace. We must depend on the mercy of God. The choir sang for us the beautiful anthem “Lord Have Mercy.” It comes from Luke 18:13, a prayer of the publican who fell on his knees, beat his breast, and cried out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” This statement, called the Jesus Prayer, became an entreaty in ancient Christianity that was used repeatedly in all kinds of situations. That prayer is appropriate for every one of us today because we are all tempted to go astray into our own kind of idolatry.
On Ash Wednesday I went to our Prayer Room to pray for this church and to pray about this sermon. Honestly it took me a while to get a grip on this topic and figure out where to go with Jezebel. I looked up and saw there on the wall the stained glass window, which came from the former location of Morningside on South Converse Street. That picture is based on the account in Luke 10 when Jesus goes to the home of Mary and Martha, two sisters who live in Bethany. Martha is so busy, busy, busy, making preparations for a meal; but Mary comes and sits at the feet of Jesus.
What pulls us away from our devotion to God? Could it be our busyness? That thought came to me on Ash Wednesday when I was in the Prayer Room. We can become so busy that we neglect the one thing needful – the life of prayer – which can be expressed in the simple words of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus tells this church in Thyatira, “All the churches will know that I am he who searches the hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.” The church can be purified, strengthened, and helped. The letter concludes with the instructions to hold on, to hold fast: “I will give authority over the nations…just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star.” The reference to the morning star previously appears in Psalm 2. This authority over the nations is shared with the Lord Jesus Christ.
That wonderful passage is so appropriate after our recent close encounter with a huge rock flying through space and hitting Earth. We must get up early in the morning before daylight to see the planet Venus, which is also called the morning star. In Revelation 22:16 Jesus repeats this imagery: “I am the bright and morning star.” Those who hold fast, who have Jesus as our guide and inspiration have hope ever before us.
Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior? Have you acknowledged him as the Lord of your life? If not, I invite you to make that decision today.
Kirk H. Neely © February 2013