The Letter to the Church at Thyatira

Series: Preacher: Date: May 24, 2009 Scripture Reference: Revelation 2:18-29

One of my favorite movies of all time is William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. Does anyone else share my love of this classic film? Well, we’re not alone because when Ben-Hur premiered in 1959 it won 11 academy awards including best picture and best actor! The movie is based on the best-selling novel by Lew Wallace—and for those of you too young to have seen it—I’ll tell you that the plot focuses on the life of a man from a prominent Jewish family living in Jerusalem in about 30A.D.—a man named Judah Ben-Hur. To make a long story short—Judah is charged with a crime he did not commit—charged by someone who had been his friend since childhood. Judah’s sister and mother are seized and thrown in prison while he is sentenced to a life of slavery chained to an oar in a Roman galley. I want to show you a scene that takes place right after Judah has been arrested and put in chains along with other “criminals.” They have been force-marched through the dessert and as they go through the village of Nazareth the Roman soldiers in charge decide to stop for water. A carpenter named Jesus sees Judah and his fellow prisoners through the window of His shop and…well, watch what happens.

Now—the thing that stands out to me in this scene is the power of Jesus’ gaze. We never see His face—but we can see that with the power of His eyes, our Lord looks deep into Judah’s heart and with that look, He soothes not only the physical agony Judah has gone through—but the emotional pain of betrayal as well. As long as Judah looks into Jesus’ eyes, he is at peace. And did you notice—with just a glance—without uttering a single word—Jesus even stopped that cruel Roman soldier in his tracks! That battle-hardened centurion couldn’t stand against those eyes.

I decided to show this clip because, as I said, I think it does a good job of illustrating the POWER of Jesus’ vision—and this morning it’s important for us to understand how POWERFUL Jesus’ vision really is because in our text for today Jesus tells us what He has seen as He focused His eyes on the fourth church in the book of Revelation—the church that was located in Thyatira. Take your Bibles and turn to Revelation 2:18-29 and you’ll “SEE” what I mean—for this letter shows that Jesus saw far more than mere mortal eyes would.

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 [I SEE] 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: [I see that] You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. 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 [sees and] 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 – Only hold on to what you have until I come.

26 – To him who overcomes and does My will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—

27 – ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father.

28 – I will also give him the Morning Star.

29 – He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Now—as we have done with the three prior letters we have studied—I want to begin today by giving you some background. This is important because, as Doug Greenwald reminded us a few months back if we are to understand both what the Bible means and also how we are to apply its truth to our lives, we must have a proper understanding of the CONTEXT. This is ESPECIALLY true when we study the symbol-packed verses of the book of Revelation. We have to know who it was written to—and what their lives were like back then. Contextual information like that will help us to clearly SEE the eternal principles in this text that God wants us to apply to day-to-day life in our own day and age.

Let me give you a somewhat contemporary EXAMPLE of this particular principle of Bible study by using something John Ortberg wrote about ten years ago. I want you to imagine that in the late 1990’s you came across the following excerpt from a copy of The Chicago Tribune. With the CONTEXT of that time and place in mind, see if you can figure out what it means. Here goes:

“The bull which once ruled the earth has had a mighty fall. The great right horn, whose number was twenty and three, let the reader understand, has departed. And the left horn, likewise, is gone, as is the third horn, which was pierced in many places and dressed like a woman. And the Hornets and the Timberwolves and all the beasts of the fields have gathered to devour the flesh of the Bull.” Now—if you were reading this in The Tribune in 1999 what SPORT would you be reading about? Right—BASKETBALL—specifically the career changes of basketball stars: Michael Jordan, Scotty Pippen, and Dennis Rodman, who has been known to dress like a woman and has indeed been pierced in many places. But—if you weren’t a professional basketball fan—if you didn’t know about the Chicago Bulls—well, then you could read any meaning into these words that you wanted—and that kind of error happens a lot when people study the book of Revelation. They don’t dig and study—they don’t “…rightly divide the word of truth…” so they don’t fully understand the meaning God intends in these words and these people end up teaching all kinds of “bull”—all kinds of weird things.

So whenever we study the Bible we must always start with the historical context—especially as we study this last, the LAST book of the Bible—otherwise we end up with facts that are more hysterical than historical. With that in mind—let’s begin by DIGGING into the contextual background of the letter to this fourth church. Thyatira—which is a city in modern-day Turkey called Akhisar—Thyatira is located about 35 miles southeast of Pergamum and would have been the fourth stop a 1st century mail man would have made in delivering these seven letters. Let’s review our “You’ve Got Mail” route: Patmos to Ephesus, Ephesus to Smyrna, Smyrna to Pergamum…and Pergamum to Thyatira—a town that is located in a valley—which means it had no natural fortification at all. I mean, it wasn’t on a high hill like Pergamum—and although a Roman garrison was stationed in Thyatira—that garrison’s job was not to defend Thyatira but just to fight a delaying action against any invaders—fighting long enough for Pergamum, the capital up the road to get prepared for the coming attack. In short, Thyatira was thought of as DISPENSABLE in the military economy of the day.

In fact, many scholars have noted that ironically this, the LONGEST of the seven letters, was written to the smallest and least important of the seven cities. Pliny the Elder—who you may remember spoke so highly of the city of Pergamum—Pliny dismisses Thyatira in a contemptuous phrase found in his writings. He began a sentence by saying, “Thyatira and other unimportant cites…” so this town wasn’t a bright spot on the map back then—and to help you understand it’s insignificance…I would point out that there’s a lot of things that Thyatira was NOT:

  • It was not a city of political importance. It wasn’t the capitol of a province.
  • It was not a city of particular religious importance in the 1st century. Unlike Pergamum, it was not a center of either the worship of Greek gods—or of the worship of the emperor.
  • Thyatira had no glorious past. No famous figure was born there. George Washington did NOT sleep there.
  • Finally, it was not a cultural—academic center. It had no harbor or library—and as far as I know, it had no theater.

So Thyatira was pretty much a “plain Jane on the plain” kind of town. But that is not completely true because Thyatira did have ONE claim to fame in that it was located on a major trade route which led it to become well-known for its TRADE GUILDS. In fact, Thyatira had more guilds than any other town of its size. There were guilds—or trade unions—for carpenters, bronze workers, cobblers, potters, tanners, weavers, tent makers, etc. all making a living from their trade along this trade route. And perhaps the most famous guilds were the dyers guilds—people who’s career was dying clothe certain colors—especially PURPLE. You see the purple die came from the madder root—and that root grew all around Thyatira. And remember? As Acts 16 tells us, LYDIA, the trader in purple cloth that lived in Philippi and helped start the church there—LYDIA was from Thyatira. Many believe that she eventually returned to her “plain Jane on the plain” home town and started this church. In any case Thyatira was pretty much a “blue collar” town. So if you were to have a job you had to be a tradesman and to make any money you had to join one of these guilds. Now—the members of these trade guilds were expected to share a common meal on a regular basis but it was much more than a covered dish supper. You see the meal was eaten in a pagan temple—and the food you ate was meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan god. Each guild had its own god—sort of a “heavenly mascot…” and all guild members were expected to participate. These trade guild meals were infamous for degrading into evenings filled with drunkenness and sexual immorality—and we’ll come back to the implications of all this guild stuff later.

But, before we go any further I want you to note that Jesus refers to Himself in verse 18 as the “SON OF GOD.” I point this out for a couple reasons. First, this is the only time Jesus refers to Himself in this way in the entire book of Revelation. And second, contrary to what many skeptics say, it is one of MANY times in the Bible that Jesus makes this claim. Jesus repeatedly said that He was God in the flesh. In any case, as verse 18 says, this is Jesus Who is speaking here—God, not man—and as God, Jesus SEES things that others miss. His powerful eyes even give Him constant, intimate knowledge of our secret thoughts and motives. Here are a few proof texts: In Jeremiah God says,“For My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from My face, nor is their iniquity hidden from My eyes. I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.” (Jeremiah 16:17, 17:10) Hebrews 4:13 says,“And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to Whom we must give account.” Isaiah 29:15 “Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, ‘Who sees us? Who will know?’” Well, as you hear these verses, remember this fact—GOD SEES ALL! Nothing is hidden from His sight. He knows what you think and what you want to do. We often delude ourselves in thinking that no one knows something or other—but God does! To quote an old movie plot, “He knows what you did.” Anyone feeling a little uncomfortable right now?

Okay—according to our text—and CONtext—what did JESUS know—what did He see when He looked at the church in Thyatira with “…eyes like blazing fire?”

(1) Well, first, Jesus saw some GOOD things.

In His letter, He paid the members of that church great compliments. In fact of all the churches of Revelation no church got more praise than Thyatira. Look at verse 19 where Jesus says, “I know—I SEE—your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and [I see] that you are now doing more than you did at first. So first off, Jesus SAW that there were Christians in this church who “…let their light so shine before men that GOD could SEE their GOOD WORKS.” Thyatira apparently rivaled Ephesus in busy Christian service for Jesus basically said, “Not only are you working hard—you’re working HARDER! You are doing more than you once did.” But that’s not all—Jesus SAW that they exhibited the LOVE that Ephesus lacked and persevered in the FAITH that was imperilled at Pergamum. These are great compliments indeed because remember—God’s greatest command is for us to LOVE Him and each other. And, as Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without FAITH it is impossible to please God because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” On top of that, like Smyrna it had members who displayed the virtue of PATIENT ENDURANCE in the midst of tribulation.

So you could say Jesus looked at this church and saw that it was like a beautiful garden in which the best Christian graces blossomed; humble ministry and patient endurance on the one hand and on the other, that trinity so often described by Paul: faith, hope, and love. I mean—to an outside observer—Thyatira would have looked like a great church. If we visited there we would have been impressed even after one Sunday.

(2) But Jesus’ vision is infinitely better than ours—He looks beneath the surface…and saw some BAD things as well.

You see, in the same way that an apple can look great on the outside but have a worm on the inside—this church looked perfect but beneath the surface a part of it was rotten—and the rot was spreading. And you know, the sad truth is—all it takes to turn something good into something very bad is one “worm” — one little busy destroyer. I mean, if we are not careful, then contrary to the song lyric—one bad apple CAN spoil the whole bunch. I’m reminded of the story about a man who wanted to sell his house. Another man wanted to buy it but could only afford HALF the asking price. Well, after much bargaining, the owner finally agreed to sell his house for half the price—but under one condition. He retained ownership of one small nail which protruded from just over the front door. The buyer thought that one nail could not be much of a big deal so he readily agreed…and the went to closing. After several years the original owner decided he wanted the house back but the new owner said, “no.” So the first owner went out and found the carcass of a dead dog and he hung it from the single nail that he still owned—the one right above the front door. Because of the stench, soon the house became unlivable and the family was forced to sell to the owner of the nail. The moral of this story is that we must never give evil a foothold in our lives—or in our churches—because if we do, its stink will spread and threaten the health of the entire body. By the way, does the devil own a “nail” in you life? Does he? Well, the “nail” or “worm” in this church was an evil woman that Jesus refers to as “Jezebel.” This wasn’t her real name and a literal translation would be, “that ‘Jezebel’ of a woman.” To help us understand how evil this Thyatiran woman was—let’s remind ourselves of the FIRST Jezebel—whose story is recorded in 1st Kings 16-19. She was the wife of a weak man named Ahab, the king of the northern kingdom. Jezebel’s father was Ethball, a priest of Baal who had succeeded to the throne of Sidon by murdering his predecessor.

The worship of Baal encouraged gross sexual immorality including temple prostitutes both male and female. Well, Jezebel was apparently a priestess of Baal herself and she persuaded Ahab to build a temple to Baal in Samaria. When it was done she supported 850 prophets of her immoral cult there and killed off any prophet of God she could lay her hands on. You may remember it was Jezebel who threatened to kill the prophet Elijah after he called down fire from heaven and had her prophets of Baal executed. Jezebel also murdered her neighbor, Naboth, so that her husband could seize the dead man’s vineyard. Ray Stedman writes, “She was a ruthless, Godless, calculating, power-mad seducer of the people.” 2nd King 9 says that she was known for witchcraft and idolatry. In short, Jezebel was not a good person. No—she made it her goal to corrupt Israel as Balaam had done before her—and Ahab lacked the moral conviction to withstand her. By the way, she died as it had been prophesied—thrown from the palace window into the courtyard below, where her body was set upon by dogs who licked up her blood.
Since then the name JEZEBEL has been used an adjective to describe a wicked, evil person.

I’m reminded of the story of a husband and wife who were traveling and they stopped at a gas station. This is an old story—from the days when you didn’t pump your own gas so the attendant came out and asked, “Fill ‘er up?” The husband said “Yes, please.” The attendant asked, “You have a nice car. What kind is it?” The husband said, “It’s a Chrysler.” The wife was hard of hearing and asked, “What did he say?” The husband said, “He wanted to know what kind of car we have. I told him it was a Chrysler.” The attendant asked, “Are you going far?” The husband said, “We are just going to Nashville.” The attendant asked, “Where are you from?” The husband said, “Atlanta.” The wife asked, “What did he say?” And the husband said, “He asked where we were from and I told them Atlanta.” The attendant said, “Atlanta—I used to know a woman there. She was the meanest, hardest, bitterest, coldest woman I have ever known in all my life.” The wife asked, “What did he say?” and the husband said, “He thinks he knows your mother.”

Well, there was an evil woman in the church in Thyatira whose actions reminded Jesus of Jezebel—and the Christians in that church either had a poor conscience or very weak courage—because they refused to silence her—much as Ahab let his wicked wife wear the pants in the family. Now—as I said earlier, to make a living as a tradesman the Thyatiran Christians had to belong to a trade guild but belonging to a guild meant they were pressured and probably required….to participate in immoral sexual practices and idol worship. So, these believers were confronted with a decision—in their minds they could remain faithful to God which would probably mean their families would starve….or they could go along with the trade union crowd and become involved with idol worship and the immorality that always goes along with it. Well, this “Jezebel of a woman” was teaching in her Sunday School class that it was okay to submit to these cultural pressures—that God would overlook this sin. If this sounds familiar that’s because you’ve heard it before. Jezebel was basically advocating the same kind of compromise that the Nicolaitans and the followers of Balaam did. But in Thyatira it was different. According to Revelation 2:6, the church at Ephesus HATED, “…the practices of the Nicolaitans…” and would not tolerate them. The church at Pergamum had some who held to the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:14-15)…but Thyatira actually tolerated them. She was apparently in leadership she referred to herself as a prophetess—a title no one disputed—so her teachings, including satan’s deep secrets went unchecked.

Unfortunately churches in our day and age tolerate this same kind of thing. I’m reminded of denominations that ignore the clear teaching of Scripture and endorse homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle or churches that don’t love its members enough to discipline those who engage in other forms of immorality.

And remember—as I told you last week—God’s laws are for our good. They both protect us from evil and provide us with His best…so if we REALLY love one another we’ll love each other enough to ADMONISH our friends who sin. As Paul writes in Romans 15:14, one proof that we have “real Christian character and experience…” is that we, “…are capable of keeping one another on the right road.”

In any case the BAD thing that Jesus saw as He looked at this church was this sad fact that its members did nothing to silence this false prophet—this “Jezebel of a woman.” And please don’t misunderstand me—Jesus’ problem wasn’t that she was a FEMALE prophet. No Scripture forbids a woman from exercising the gift of prophecy. In fact there are Godly prophetesses in the Bible both in the Old Testament and the New. For example, Philip, that super-deacon from the book of Acts, had four daughters who were prophetesses—women who faithfully exercised their spiritual gift for the edification of the church. So the problem with Thyatiara’s prophetess was not that she was WOMAN—but that she was a FALSE prophet in that she spoke for the adversary—not God. Now—how can we tell a false teacher when we see one? What are some things to look for? How can we spot the “Jezebels” — both male and female — in our day and age?

A. First, they tend to teach that the Bible is not authoritative.

A TRUE prophet is a person who speaks for God by either foretelling the future or forth-telling the Word of God. A TRUE prophet has authority because their words come from God through either straight from the Bible—or from revelations that never contradict the Bible. So Jezebel was a false prophet because she taught things that are contrary to God’s inspired Word.

B. Here’s a second symptom of false teaching You see, prophets that are NOT from God tend to elevate personal experience OVER the teachings of Scripture.

Their philosophy is, “Forget the Bible—it’s an old out-dated book. If it FEELS good—it must be GOOD.” It’s like that silly old song lyric, “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” The fact is any time we let go of God’s written Word so that we can cling to experience that FEELS good—any time we do this we are headed for trouble. I have a dear friend who gradually began to give his own experience more authority than Scripture—and without that anchor he drifted away into sin…and all kinds of unscriptural beliefs. Several lives were hurt or ruined as a result of this foolish EXPERIENCE-driven choice.

We must remember that one reason God gave us this book is because we are sinful beings who tend to go astray of His will—so we need this written WORD of TRUTH. I know that “doctrine” is a bad word these days, even in many Christian circles…but we need the doctrines of the Bible. And within it’s pages God warns us of those who would tell us otherwise. In 2nd Timothy 4:3-4 it says,“The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up from themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth and be turned aside to fables.”

C. Finally, false prophets tend to teach that something evil can be good.

In Thyatira Jezebel probably said things like this,“You need to make a living and God doesn’t expect you to starve. Don’t be worried. God has told me its alright. It’s okay to go and be a part of the guilds and participate in the immoral and idolatrous worship that occurs in their meetings after all we live by grace and are not under the law any more.”

The Jezebels of our day say that homosexual marriage is okay as long as it is based on love or that seeking after material possessions is okay because having them is a sign of God’s favor or even that doing away with the Bible is okay as long as you are “experiencing” communion with God. Paul warned the Ephesians about this particular teaching of false prophets in Acts 20:29-30 when he said, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!”

False prophets tend to rationalize away the truth such that they compromise their convictions and end up doing things that they know are wrong—things they know they shouldn’t do.
And the sad fact is, we are all very good at rationalizing away behavior we know is not good. Have you heard the story about the guy who was on a diet and he wanted a donut so bad that he could taste it? He knew he shouldn’t have it, so he prayed to God, “All right God, I’m here in front of the bakery. I’m going to circle the block and if there’s a parking place in front of the bakery, I’ll know it’s Your will for me to have a donut.”

So he circled the block and sure enough, the TWELFTH time around there was a parking space right in front of the bakery. We laugh but we all play that game—don’t we? We all rationalize our way into compromise and sin. In fact, let me ask—where have you been rationalizing lately? What sin are you tempted to rationalize away right now? Listen friends! I’m not kidding here. Jezebel’s voice is not silent in the 21st century any more than it was in the 1st. You can count on the evil one whispering things like this to you: “You’re unhappy in this marriage and God doesn’t want you to be unhappy. It would be unbearable for you to go through life being unhappy so you better leave. You better exit maybe emotionally, maybe physically, because you couldn’t bear to be unhappy for the rest of your life….and that’s what will happen if you stay faithful.”

The Jezebels of today will say, “You better not obey God fully in this situation…You better not stand up for what you really believe.” Or… “You better not give generously….God doesn’t expect you to tithe in these economic times….so don’t because if you do, you may not be able to get those things you want…I mean need.” You can count on that voice putting thoughts like THIS in your head, “Oh, you may shade the truth sometimes, but there are people who are much bigger liars than you are. They’re the ones with the real problem.” Or “You may cross a sexual line now and then but in our society who can avoid it. There’s people much more out of control than you. Besides, you’ve been under so much stress you deserve relief.” Friends, some of you may be THIS CLOSE to a spiritual compromise that will be a disaster….one that is going to end in judgement…and if that applies to you listen to Jesus and repent.

Now—I know that the judgement Jesus says is coming in His letter—I know it sounds hard—and we could debate all morning whether He meant the LITERAL death of this woman’s children or the SPIRITUAL death of those who embraced her teachings like a child would those of a parent but the clear truth here that we must not miss is that there is ALWAYS a painful consequence to sin. Sin may feel good for a little while—but it HURTS for a LONG TIME…so if you’re rationalizing your way into compromise then HEAR WHAT THE SPIRIT SAYS!

And—if you need further motivation then hear this—there is PAIN involved in sin—but JOY comes from obedience. To those of us who follow His leading Jesus promises authority over the nations. In other words, He’ll use us to turn the world upside down! PLUS—He’ll give us the Morning Star—which is Jesus Himself. If we repent…if we turn from our sin and turn toward God we’ll have intimate fellowship with Jesus for all eternity.


Father God,

I ask that with Your eyes that blaze like fire—You would look closely at each of us. Then, open our eyes God—and show us what You see. Show us the areas in our life where we are compromising and rationalizing sinful behavior. Convict us of this God—make us feel embarrassed and uncomfortable for any attitude or action that pulls us away from Your will.
God—lead us not into temptation—steer us clear of the Jezebels of life—help us to recognize a false prophet when we see one. Make us bold enough such that we don’t tolerate anyone like this by gullibly giving them and the adversary they serve a foothold in our lives. Help us to always be a church that hates sin—while loving the sinner—even if that means uncomfortable conversations in which we strive to keep them on the right road. I ask this in the name of the Morning Star—Jesus. AMEN.

As we stand now and sing our hymn of invitation—I encourage you to give an ear to the voice of God’s Spirit. If you feel led to profess your faith in Jesus—or to join this church family—or to make any other public decision, then walk forward and talk with me or Bobby or Kevin.


Let the PEACE OF CHRIST rule in your hearts
since as members of one body you were called to peace.
Let the WORD OF CHRIST dwell in you richly
and whatever you do…in word or in deed
Do it all in the NAME OF CHRIST giving thanks to God the Father
through Him.

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