THYATIRA, A FEW THINGS WRONG
A Study in Revelation 2.18-29. (Part 1)
K. W. H. Howard
We come to the fourth of these letters of the risen Christ to the seven Churches in Asia; and indeed, to all churches of all time. Here is the letter to the Church at Thyatira. It is, as you see, by far the longest of all the letters even though Thyatira was the smallest of the seven cities which received these letters. It was a very ancient city, once a garrison town in an open valley about seventy miles south-east of Pergamos. At the time this letter was sent to the church it was a pagan city. It had many deities and its chief deity was in the form of a soldier, complete with a battle axe. Ever since Asia Minor became a Roman province, Thyatira had been a thriving commercial centre, full of crafts, full of trades, full of business. Archaeologists have brought to light a wonderful amount of information from inscriptions and other sources in Thyatira which mention crafts such as wool workers, linen workers, dyers, leather workers, potters, braziers, bakers and so on. An important thing about each of these trades, important for what we have to consider later on, is the fact that each trade had its own guild for its own workers.
It was from this city, Thyatira, that a certain enterprising woman named Lydia, a business woman, came. She was in the cloth trade;
at least, she was in that particular part that had to do with the dyeing of cloth. She was a seller of cloth that had been dyed in purple there in the city of Thyatira. Three or four hundred miles away, in Philippi, Lydia met with the Apostle Paul round about the year A.D. 52, and through him, the Lord opened Lydia’s heart, and Lydia opened her home, and became hostess to the infant Church at Philippi. That is the only link we have with the Church at Thyatira apart from what we are told here in the Book of the Revelation. It is a very tenuous link, it is a very uncertain link. We cannot be sure that Lydia went back to Thyatira as a Christian, having left it as a pagan, and in some way had a part in sowing the seeds of the Gospel when she returned to her native place from Philippi. What we do .now is that, forty or fifty years after Lydia’s conversion in Philippi, here was a Christian Church in Thyatira, and to it, this letter from he risen Lord was sent by the hand of the Apostle John.
The letter has those three elements to which I have referred previously, commendation, complaint, and counsel. We must look at them in turn.
1. The Divine Watcher
We begin as usual, with the element of commendation, the commendation that the risen Lord gave to this Christian Church. It is contained in verse 19 where He says, ‘I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first’. The previous verse tells us that it was the commendation of the Son of God. ‘These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire’, burning, flashing like fire, penetrating hidden corners. Nothing was hid from His sight at Thyatira or anywhere else. These eyes that penetrated the affairs of the Church at Thyatira, were able to read what they saw, and they were able to interpret what they read, as to what was going on in that church. The eyes of the Lord Jesus had never lost their brilliance, never lost their penetrating power, and we must take heed that those eyes still have the same penetrating power. They still reach into the very vitals of every Church and conduct a continual inspection of its inner life, for the Lord of the Churches is still the one whose eyes are as a flame of fire, no matter what we cover up, He sees, no matter what we disguise. He penetrates. He reads and He interprets what He reads.
The other thing in verse 18, describing Him who makes the commendation is this; that He was also the one who had feet like burnished or polished brass. Those shining feet speak, surely, of the weighty judgment in which He was going to march against the Church at Thyatira. Well, any commendation from such a Lord and Master must be of great value; no commendation from such a person could come lightly, nor could it be given easily. Therefore, whatever commendation the Son of God with the flashing eyes gave to the Church at Thyatira, was warranted, and was merited, and was deserved.
2. Their Works and Character
Here it is in verse 19, and it is in fact, twofold. First He says, I know your works, and second He says, I know your character. Let us look at them in that way.
I know your works. He knew the inside, for He is the midst of the seven golden candlesticks, and He says, I know your works. He does not list their works, or tell us what they were, but He simply declares the fact that He is acquainted with them, and that He approves of them. Whatever the Thyatirians were, they were not a stagnant, sleepy, lethargic bunch of Christians. They had work to do in the city as Christian believers, and they did it. They had a witness to bear in the city as Christian believers, and they bore it. The Lord
Jesus said of them and of their witness, I know your works, I commend you.
The next thing He says is, I know your character. He says, in verse nineteen, I know your charity, and service, and faith, and patience, and works; and the last to be more than the first. Here is, I submit, a description of the character of the people who comprised this church. He knew what they were in their works, but He also knew that what they were in their works, was determined by what they were in their character. Behind all they did for Christ, was what they were in Christ. The Lord picks it all out, step by step, point by point. What are the elements He sees in their character? He says, I know your charity, your love. Thyatira apparently, was in a better condition than Ephesus at this time. The Church at Ephesus had lost its first love. Apparently, there was no deterioration; there was no declining of love among the brethren at Thyatira. One element in their character was the element of Christian love, and it was commended.
Another element in their love was their service. He says, I know your service, and the word ‘service’ is the same word which is rendered in many other places as ministry. I know the service that you render. He does not specify what form of service, or what form of ministry that may have been. It may be a reference to the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the Gospel, but then that would have been primarily the work of the angel or the pastor, and He is speaking to the Church as a whole. It seems to be much more likely that He is referring to a ministry of common compassion and concern that these people had, not only one for another, but also for them that were without. They were a caring and a sharing congregation. People could not be ill at Thyatira and nobody bothered about it for weeks on end; rather the reverse, there was compassionate concern for one another. This of course, was an extension of their love. Love was the spring, service was the outcome, and the Lord commended it. I know your service. It had not gone unnoticed. Those cups of cold water in my Name. Those acts and deeds that were not obligatory, but which were, none the less, unstintingly done. I know your service.
Another element in their character is this, their faith, which I think should be understood in the substantive sense, faithfulness. He says, I know your faith, your steadfastness, your fidelity to the Lord and to His cause. It seems that the believers in Thyatira refused to be dislodged from what they stood for. Like the Church at Pergamos, they were a loyal, faithful people, and Christ said: ‘I know, I commend you.’
Another element in their character was their patience; their patient endurance. ‘I know thy patience.’ They had the grace of ‘stickability’. They had the capacity of bearing up under pressure, the capacity to weather each storm as it came, and to remain still when all around them was tempest-tossed. The Lord said, ‘I know, I know, I have noted, I have registered the fact of your patience. I commend you.’
Yet another element in their character was progress, for this is what the Lord meant. He knows all these things, their work, their love, their service, their faith, their patience, and then He says at the end of the verse, ‘And the last to be more than the first’, which I take to mean that in each of these elements they were progressive. They were increasing in these facets of character; they were not running on the spot. The latest expressions of their love and service and faith and patience and so on were greater than the earlier expressions. They grew in grace, and it was grace that was shown in their character, in spite of their enemies, in spite of the paganism around them. In spite of all, the One who had the eyes as a flame of fire, could penetrate and could see not only what was there, but could see its development, and its advance in their Christian character. I know your works, and your character. What a commendation!
We are bound to ask, Would we merit, as a Church, such a commendation? What do His all-penetrating eyes see in us as a Church? Are there good works whereunto we were ordained? Is there progress in godliness and the things of God? Such questions ask themselves from a passage like this, and we must therefore ask them too. He does not break the bruised reed, He does not quench the smoking flax, but the commendations of the Son of God, with the eyes of fire, count only when they are merited, when He sees due cause for them. There, then, is the commendation that Christ gave to the Church at Thyatira.
1. A Few Things Against Thee
I pass on from the commendation to the complaint that He registers concerning the Church at Thyatira. This is a matter over which He takes much more time, because there was reason why the Church at Thyatira was to be withstood, and was to be blamed. The complaint runs all the way from verse 20 to verse 23 in this chapter. We might well wonder what valid complaint the Lord could have against a Church that He had so outrightly commended. Where can any complaint get in here among all their faithfulness, and love, and patience, and endurance and progress? But complaint there was. It must serve to remove all complacency from us, and it must serve to remove all complacency from any Christian Church. However well we are doing, we are not doing well enough. You may notice that the Lord’s complaint to the Ephesian Church was introduced by the word, “nevertheless” (verse 4). The complaint concerning the Church at Pergamos was introduced by the word, ‘but’ (verse 14). Now the complaint concerning the Thyatirian Church is introduced by, ‘notwithstanding’ (verse 20). In each case there are words of commendation followed by these disappointing words. There is commendation, BUT. There is praise, but NEVERTHELESS. There is approval, yet NOTWITHSTANDING. I have a few things against thee.
In fact, the Lord had two things in particular against the Church at Thyatira. What were they? They are indicated principally in verse 20. It can be put like this, the first thing He had against them was, ‘that woman, Jezebel,’ and the second thing can be put like this, ‘thou sufferest that woman, Jezebel.’ To put it in another way, Christ complained to the Church at Thyatira, first about the activity of that woman, and secondly about the inactivity of the Church concerning that woman. First, that the woman was there, second, that the Church tolerated that woman, Jezebel. You may perhaps note the fact that this complaint was comparable to, though not completely identical with, the complaint that was made against the Church at Pergamos. There was a problem, and the Church did nothing about it.
First, we have to look at the activity of the woman. Verse 20, ‘Notwithstanding, I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols’. Let us ask one or two questions about Jezebel. Who was she? What was her identity? The only Jezebel we know of in the Bible of course, was the wife of Ahab, king of Israel, of whom we are told in the first Book of Kings. Before she married Ahab, she was a heathen princess. It is clear that Jezebel was a brilliantly clever woman; she was notoriously evil, and she was at heart, a pagan. We read in the Book of Kings about the whoredoms of Jezebel, and her witchcraft. Elijah was the prophet of Israel at the time when Jezebel lived, and Elijah, as I understand him, had the ability to handle Ahab fairly well, but he found Ahab’s wife much more difficult. She was so clever, so scheming, cunning, insidious, so thoroughly evil, that Elijah found Jezebel rather more than he could cope with. One writer has called Jezebel, and I think with some justification, ‘the female anti-Christ of the Old Testament’.
Now, this letter to the Church at Thyatira does not suggest that Jezebel, who died a thousand years before, made a reappearance at this particular time. Nor does it suggest that some descendant of Jezebel with the same name appeared in Thyatira. Rather it seems to me, that there was a trouble-making woman in the Church at Thyatira who had some, at least some, not necessarily all, but some of the features of Jezebel’s character; a woman who acted in the city as a prophetess. You remember how Jude, in his short Epistle, speaks about ‘certain men crept in unawares’, that is, into the Church. The New Testament records instances of this happening. Simon the sorcerer crept, unawares, into the Church at Jerusalem; they did not know what he was when he came in and made his confession and gave his testimony. They found out, and here is a comparable case, a charlatan, a deceiver who could talk like an angel and behave like a devil! This was the woman who had come into the Church at Thyatira and deceived the Church, pretending to be a Christian, and had entered into membership. Churches can make mistakes like that; churches have made mistakes like that; churches do make mistakes like that. Anyone can be deceived. That is why Paul gives the exhortation in the Epistle to the Galatians, Be not deceived! Be not deceived! But men are deceived, and Churches are deceived.
We may wonder perhaps, at this, and we must certainly be warned by it. It raises many questions. How came Ahab, king of Israel anyway, to marry a pagan princess? How came Philip, the deacon evangelist, so commendable a man, so honourable a man, to be deceived by Simon the sorcerer? How came the whole Church at Jerusalem, and certainly some of the Apostles, to be deceived over Ananias and Sapphira? Why did they not see through them? But they did not. Yes, and then worse than all that is this, how came the whole apostolic band to be deceived by Judas Iscariot? The Lord was not deceived, nor is He ever deceived. The Lord said, and this is what put the Apostles on their guard, ‘Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?’ The Lord with His omniscience, with His eyes flashing as a flame of fire, saw through Judas Iscariot. The same Lord with His flashing eyes as a flame of fire saw through this Jezebel of a woman who had got into the Church at Thyatira. He was not deceived, but the Church at Thyatira did not see through her; the Church at Thyatira was permitted not to see through her, and the Church at Thyatira suffered perilously from her. Here is a plain fact of history that has been so often repeated, a fact of experience, that sometimes the Lord allows a Jezebel into the Church. Sometimes He allows an evil woman or an evil man (the question of sex is beside the point, it happens to be a woman in this case), to parade as a saint among His saints, and many, many are deceived. We are inclined to ask the question, Why does He do it? Why does He allow it?
There are two simple observations I would make on the matter. The first is that the Lord has given us full warning of such possibilities. He has warned us of false prophets; Jezebel called herself a prophetess, which she was not, but she called herself a prophetess. The Lord Himself has warned us of false prophets, He has even warned us of false Christs, and there have been those who have appeared in Churches and out of Churches claiming to be Christ. He has warned us that evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. He has told us that we are to be subjected to the wiles of the devil, both outwardly and inwardly, both as a Church and as individuals. He has told us that this is the kind of world in which we live, and this is the kind of deception we are to anticipate, and be on our guard against. We have been warned.
The other comment I would make on it is this. Having given us full warning, the Lord has given us full provision of armour for the fight. He has counselled us to use our armour in the fight against the deceiver, the false professor. Wherefore, take unto you the whole armour of God; for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. Yes, and principalities and powers sometimes take possession of flesh and blood, and it is in the form of flesh and blood that we see them and meet them, and have to deal with them. As John puts it in his first Epistle, ‘Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God’. Here is Jezebel; she is a prophetess, she is giving forth that she has got something by inspiration to say and to teach. Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God. That gifted person, that competent person, that confident person, that persuasive, that slightly dominant person who always wants to be in the lead, always has something to say and to do, and to perhaps have her own way. Watch them! Do not take them at face value. Believe not every spirit. Many a time these spirits are clothed in flesh and blood. Believe them not. Try them. Try them, and hold them at a distance, because if you do not, you may discover you have welcomed a Jezebel into your bosom. This is something that I could spend a long time illustrating from Church history. 1 shall forbear. I simply put the point before you. The Lord permits the possibility of this deception of a whole Church, the whole Church at Thyatira was deceived. It was not that this Church followed this woman and did what she did, and believed what she taught, but the whole Church was deceived into receiving her. The Lord permits the possibility of this deception in order to try our faith, in order to put us on our mettle. We are not to take everything, and we are certainly not to take everyone at face value, so that we may see the need to become proficient in the use of the weapons of our warfare. The Lord does not remove all obstacles from a church’s or a believer’s path, but He does arm us for the fight. So, there are the two sides.
3. Dealing With Jezebel
Let us begin with understanding in the case of this church at Thyatira, because I repeat that this letter applies to all Churches, just as all the other letters do. The Lord has warned us; we have been warned, but the Lord supplies us with armoury to meet the situation. He watches us with eyes as of a flame of fire. He has not left us without the means to deal with that woman, Jezebel. He does not fight our battles for us; He puts the armour into our hands, or puts it upon our backs, or breasts, or wherever it needs to be. We are to wear it, and we are to use it, and the case before us of a Christian Church, a whole Christian Church deceived, warns us to take nothing for granted, to watch as well as to pray, and to single out the lies of the deceiver with the sword of the Spirit. It is a solemn message indeed! To be concluded