Thyatira almost sounds like it could be a town down country somewhere in New Zealand, doesn’t it.. And it is the church in the smallest of the cities in Asia Minor mentioned in Revelations. WE talked of Ephesus being like New York or Auckland, and Pergamum being like Washington DC or Wellington and if we are using those analogies here it’s a tough job but someone’s got to be Palmerston North right? You know it might be easy to think that Jesus is concerned and interested only in the big churches in the big Cities and the significant and important places. But the longest of the seven letters is written to the smallest and least important of these cities. While we are a church in a big city we are small and it’s good to know that Jesus sees and knows about smaller churches. It’s encouraging and challenging that he knows our strengths and our conflicts, our weaknesses and our issues. He speaks his word and encouragement and truth into these places as well.
We are working our way through the seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor recorded at the beginning of the book of Revelations.. we want to ‘Hear what the Spirit has to say to the churches’… both then and there at the beginning of the second century, and here and now at the start of the churches third millennium following Christ. What does the Spirit say to the churches and what does the Spirit want to say to us?
Thyatira was originally founded as a military settlement to guard the south eastern approaches to the capital of Pergamum. But like all these cities on the major east west trade route it grew. It wasn’t politically or strategically important but it was commercially important. It became the focus for a great number of trade, merchant and craft guilds. Guilds were like professional associations or trade unions for particular industries. Archaeologists have found evidence of guilds there for bakers, tanners, cobblers, weavers, dyers and potters.
It was known in particular for its fine bronze and its purple dyed cloth. In Acts 16 Lydia who was Paul’s first convert in Europe and hosted the first church in Philippi came from Thyatira, and was a dealer in purple cloth. We don’t know how the church was established in the city of Thyatira but maybe Lydia had moved back home or the gospel spread through her dealings with her home city.
Thyatira also boasted a temple to Zeus’s son Apollos. The guilds and the temple set the background for the issue that the Church at Thyatira was facing. Guild meeting would have taken place around cultic meals in the temple, where a sacrifice to the patron deity of the guild would be made, and where cultic prostitution was also seen as an acceptable part of doing business, which would have put Christians at odds with the prevailing culture and sexual morals of the city. Refusing to participate in these meals and activities would have curbed their ability to make a living. How were they to live out their faith in that context?
As with all the letters we are introduced to the one speaking to the churches by the imagery used in John’s vision of the glorified Jesus in Revelations chapter 1. However Jesus is first introduced as the ‘Son of God’, in all the letters this is the most overt use of a messianic title we are familiar with from scripture. Apollos was known as the son of Zeus and in using the title son of God the letter is reminding the Church who is the real son of God, there can be no compromise for this church they are going to have to choose between one son or the other, they cannot worship both. The one speaking is said to have eyes like blazing fire, eyes that not only see the external but looks at the heart. In verse 23 this is spelt out more with a direct quote from Jeremiah 17:10 that God searches the hearts and the minds, and will replay each of you according to your deeds. The glorified Jesus is also seen as one who has feet like burnished bronze, in a city known for its fine bronze they would have known that this provided Jesus with a solid platform that Jesus stands for truth and is not going to be moved.
The church is then commended for its strengths. Four things are mentioned love, faith, service and perseverance. If you went to this church you would receive a warm welcome you would be aware that they loved each other deeply, that was manifest in practical ways in the way they cared for and served each other, like the other churches they had kept their faith, maybe they too had faced pressure and persecution from outside, and that faith had been practically worked out in patient endurance continuing in their love for each other. In fact these things had caused the church to be growing in its vibrancy and probably numerically, it was doing more than it had at first. The quality of relationships and the love shown to each other is a sign of vibrancy in a church, it is attractive to people when they experience genuine Christian love and service. Jesus had said “they will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another” and he demonstrated that by washing his disciples feet and ultimately in laying down his life for us. The church is designed to be a loving and accepting community across the barriers of society, a place where in Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, Greek or barbarian, slave or free, male or female. However in the case of Thyatira this love had led them to ignore issues of truth and immorality.
The issue facing this church was similar to the one at Pergamum... they had tolerated someone whose teaching, had led to sexual immorality and eating food scarified to idols. In this case it was a woman who called herself a prophet. This person claimed to know deep secrets, to have more knowledge than other people, secret knowledge that allowed them to compromise their faith; Secret knowledge that the letter sees as not being from God but from Satan. Thinking we know more than others or having special knowledge is a trap we can fall into too easily.
Like with the Church at Pergamum an Old Testament character is used to describe the false teacher. In this case it is Jezebel. Her story is told in the books of 1st and 2nd Kings she was the daughter of Ethbaal the king of tyre and became the wife of Ahab the king of Israel, she convinced Ahab to give up the worship of Yahweh and worship her deities, Baal and Asherah, While she did not claim to be a prophet she did set up a group of 480 prophets of Baal in Israel. By invoking her name here the letter tells us that the woman in Thyatira was having the same influence. Leading people astray.
What does the spirit then say to the church that found itself in this situation? Well firstly the Spirit speaks to Jezebel and her followers. Just like with the jezebel in the Old Testament God will come and judge them. As she had lead them into a bed of immorality she will find herself on a bed of suffering and her children, like in the Old Testament will be struck down. We are not happy with that violent language today. But firstly we need to note that she has been given time to repent. There is a process here, it is God’s desire that no one perish, but the person here has obviously refused to turn back to God. Through Paul’s writing to the church at Corinth in particular you can see the lengths that he is prepared to go to to bring people who have gone astray back to the gospel truth. In fact in the letters to the church at Corinth Paul outline a process to be followed with someone who was living in an immoral relationship to encourage them to repent... Secondly we may think of her actual children but it is her followers here who are talked of. Death is more likely a reference to final judgement than a physical killing. Thirdly there is the acknowledgement that God sees the heart and the mind, that God is just and repays each person according to their deeds. Just like John could right and tell us that if we confess our sins that God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, we can trust God to be just and faithful in dealing with those who do not repent. Evil will not go unpunished.
Then Jesus speaks to those at Thyatira who have not followed Jezebels teachings. Who have not gone after the deep secrets? The Spirit is not going to add another burden. One of the reactions we can have to false teaching and immorality is to retreat into stricter and stricter austerity, to clamp down and try and tie everything down in a constraining legalism. But here the words used are those we find in Acts 15 when the council of Jerusalem made its declaration about how Jewish the gentile believers were to be and asked them to simply refrain from eating food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. The second thing was that they should hold on to what they already have. They are to hold onto the love they have but also to the truth of the gospel.
What is the spirit saying to the churches?
Well in the biggest and smallest Churches, Ephesus and Thyatira we see two extremes when it comes to love and truth. In Ephesus the church had fallen into cold hard legalism, they are commended for not tolerating those who claimed to be apostles but were not. Here in Thyatira they had fallen in to a lax love, they tolerate someone who claims to be a prophet but is not, they want to include everyone but at the expense of truth. These are two poles that the church still finds itself swinging between. We find ourselves on the road between Ephesus and Thyatira. In the end truth without love is no truth, It becomes a hammer to beat people into our image with and love without truth is not love at all, how can we love someone and leave them in a place of danger and darkness. Strangely enough it’s not a compromise either that works. It’s not either or, but both and. It is the difficult road of holding on to both. This is the road that Christ has walked before us: The cross road of truth and love.
It is also an issue for us today to work out what the burden we carry is. Where do we draw the line… I love the quote that has been attributed to many people from Augustine to Count Zinzendorf (the head of the Mennonite movement) in the essentials Unity, in the non-essentials liberty, and in all things Love. Which is a great way for us to find unity across a very diverse denomination and churchscape in our world? But we also have to be aware that as Craig Keener says there are other matters that lead to spiritual life and death. Where we need to hold to the truth and to do so we will suffer accordingly particularly in a society where tolerance is the only real virtue and intolerance the only vice.”
The Homosexual debate and same sex marriage debate are an area at the moment where the church is wrestling with those issues. And it’s a hard area for us particularly in a society where to disagree with the prevailing world view is to be labelled as homophobes and haters. But we have people who view it from extremes, the extreme of exclusive truth and the extreme of inclusive love. It is not an issue that is going to go away and it one that we will continue to wrestle with to try and walk the road of truth and love. Can I say some of the people I really admire that do not often have their voices heard in this debate they are people who have what they call same sex attractions but do not choose to define their lives by their sexuality and for the sake of the gospel have chosen a single celibate lifestyle.
AS I said before Thyatira was a city known for its purple cloth, which of course was the imperial colour which is what made it so valuable. And so for the Church at Thyatira it was appropriate to say to those who are victorious who hold onto what they have in Christ, love and truth, there is the promise that we will reign with Christ. The words at the end of this letter are a direct quote from psalm 2, where God establishes his king amidst the turmoil and rage of the nations. To Christians who because of their faith refuse to become part of the system of their day this is encouragement… Maybe it’s true that as we learn to walk that tough road of holding to both radical truth and radical love we will gain the wisdom we need to judge the nations, just as Christ is able to. The other reassurance for those who are victorious is that they will be given the morning star. In revelations that is a reference to Christ himself. It is the hope that Christ who knows us and loves us will be our inheritance now and into eternity.