A Missional Reading of the Letter to Thyatira

The fourth letter is addressed to the church at Thyatira, a city of no great importance. Thyatira was not a political or religious center, nor was it of particular commercial importance. There were, of course, religious temples and Thyatira did participate in commerce, but neither marked Thyatira as in any way unique or of special importance in the region. And yet, to the “least known, least important, and least remarkable of cities” we have the longest letter. In this unremarkable city on element of social life does stand out as remarkable. Hemer comments, “The city’s most obvious peculiarity was then its unusually large number of influential trade-guilds. Associations of this kind were an ancient feature of community life…Their prominence at Thyatira, however, is quite exceptional.” Yamauchi mentions guilds for clothiers, bakers, tanners, potters, linen-workers, wool-merchants, slave-traders, copper-smiths and dyers. Virtually every craftsman or trader would have belonged to the appropriate guild in which participation would have required attendance at meetings. These meeting would include a meal dedicated to a patron god “and frequently ended in sheer debauchery and licentiousness.”

To the church in this city Jesus identifies himself as the one “who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” The exact meaning of the word χαλκολιβάνω, sometimes translated “fine brass” or “burnished bronze”, remains elusive. However, the imagery is fairly clear, drawn from Daniel 10 (as well as from the first chapter of Revelation). Daniel 10:6 records a vision of “one like a son of man” (10:16) who has “eyes like flaming torches” and “arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze.” The “eyes like a flame of fire” speaks to Jesus “penetrating insight and judgment” ; nothing will escape his sight. The “burnished bronze” was likely used for military purposes in Thyatira (copper-smithing/bronze finishing was one of the prominent guilds in Thyatira); hence, this could speak of Jesus’ warrior like stance – he stands ready to wage war against false gods (like Apollo), false teaching, and false Christians. Beale draws one more connection with the book of Daniel. In this letter John refers to Jesus as “the Son of God” – the only time he will do so in his Apocalypse. This, in such close proximity with the mention of fire and bronze may be intended to draw the church’s mind to Daniel 3 and the story of Daniel’s three faithful friends who were thrown into the super-heated furnace. In Daniel 3 King Nebuchadnezzar sees four figures in the furnace – Daniel’s three friends and “one like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:25). Beale concludes, “Just as that ‘son of God’ protected them, even in the midst of persecution, so will Christ do the same spiritually for those who are faithful in Thyatira.”

Jesus knows the church’s works, as he did the works of the church in Ephesus. Here though, unlike in Ephesus, the church has not grown lax in doing the works they were initially engaged in; instead, their present works exceed their first. In addition, they are commended for their love, something lacking in Ephesus, and their faith and patient endurance. These characteristics emphasize the church’s commitment to maintaining their “persevering witness to the outside world.” In this they are ahead of the church at Ephesus. Yet, they have not been as diligent as the Ephesian church in rooting out false teaching.

This situation in Thyatira is similar to that in Pergamum. John likens the group of false teachers to the OT Jezebel. Contrary to Beale, who understands Jezebel to be representative of the heretical group as a whole, it seems likely here that the leader of the false group, a woman, is singled out. Aune raises the possibility “that ‘Jezebel’ was a patron or hostess of one of the house churches that made up the Christian community at Thyatira who found herself in conflict with other Christian patrons, probably over an attempt to accommodate Christian practices to the surrounding culture by justifying the eating of meat offered to idols.”

As in Pergamum, the question regarding the literalness of the sexual immorality the false teachers were encouraging is open. The Jezebel of the OT did lead Ahab into worshipping Baal. However, sexual immorality was not one of the charged levied against her (her “harlotry” was likely reference to spiritual idolatry). On the other hand, Osborne points out that the religion of Baal was often quite licentious. The parallel then between the woman Jezebel/the-cult-of-Baal and the guilds is very close. In essence, this is the same heresy as the Nicolaitans. The significant difference here seems to be the emphasis on prophecy. Jezebel, the leader of the this false faction, dubbed herself a prophetess and so disguised her false teaching as a direct word from the God.

Beale rightly connects the false prophetess in this letter with the larger theme of satanic deception throughout the book and its exposition of the false ministry of the beast and the false prophet. In fact, he points out that the John uses the same word (πλανάω) to describe the deceptive work of Jezebel, the false prophet (13:14, 19:20) and of Babylon (18:23). John intimates that the Jezebel party is aligned with Babylon and satanic forces representing a sort of “fifth column movement within the church.” This subversive movement posed an obvious threat to the mission of the church and could not be allowed to continue its existence – instead of being aligned with God and his mission of redemption, Jezebel and her children had allied themselves with anti-Christ forces and were seeking to derail the church, encouraging compromise and unfaithfulness.

Jesus, though he had given her warning and time to repent, would act decisively and soon. Jesus will come and exercise discipline, throwing Jezebel and those who commit immorality with her into a sickbed, striking her children dead. The irony is that those who were following Jezebel into compromise were likely doing so to escape the troubles of not being associated with the trade guilds. But their compromise brought the far great risk of being thrown into tribulation by Jesus himself, tribulation that would including death. Beasley-Murray explains further, “It is doubtful that we are intended to distinguish the persons mentioned, as though the ‘adulterers’ were somehow less culpable than the ‘children’. John employs typical prophetic language to denote that the entire group of Jezebel followers will be brought to an end, both those who participate in sins (commit adultery with her) and those who embrace her teaching (her children).”

The result of Jesus’ discipline would be that “all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.” These words are an echo of Jeremiah 17:10 where the prophet reminds Judah of the deceitfulness of the human heart and the Lord’s power to search heart and mind and repay “according to the fruit of his deeds.” Christ’s judgment upon Jezebel and her disciples would provide a warning for all the churches – do not allow yourself be deceived by false teachers, or you too will be thrown under the judgment of God. To the rest of Thyatira, the shepherd of the church adds no other burden, only to hold fast.

To those who conquer, “who keep my work until the end”, Jesus promises authority over the nations. Again, this promise reminds the readers that there is an appointed end – the mission of God and of the church will be accomplished. The church that has remained militant will become the church victorious and will share in Messiah’s rule over the nations, a rule that was anticipated in Psalm 2:7-9,“I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel’” (see also Rev. 11:18; 12:5; 19:15).

Commentators are evenly divided on the sense of the words ἑξουσίαν and ποιμανεῖ. While some argue that ἑξουσίαν should be taken to mean “authority to rule” and ποιμανεῖ to mean “rule”, the rest of the context indicates a stronger reading of these key words. It is preferable to read ἑξουσίαν as connoting “power” (even “power to destroy”) and adopt the secondary meaning of ποιμανεῖ, namely “destroy.” Osborne comments, “Those who interpret this as ‘rule’ are wrong. The violence connoted in the ‘rod of iron’ and the ‘shattering’ of the pottery is simply too strong for ‘rule’…the nations who oppose the saints will be destroyed by them…The imagery is that of total destruction. This depicts the absolute devastation of the hostile nations by the Messiah and his people.”

Meredith Kline gives keen insight into the soteriological elements of this judgment on the nations. He writes, “The final judgment is redemptive; it secures various soteric benefits for God’s people…Besides sealing their salvation from the wrath of God, the final judgment delivers them from the hostility of evil men.” God’s mission includes the total redemption of his fallen world, including a removal of all rival kingdoms, all threats to God’s people, all things that fall short of his glory. Those who overcome will take part in this climactic victory and in the glorious eschatological kingdom.

In addition, the overcomers are promised the morning star. Again, there is significant ambiguity in understanding the exact meaning of this reference. Some have taken it as a reference to Venus, the brightest luminary in the sky after the sun and moon and oft used symbol of victory and sovereignty, especially used by Roman generals. This would certainly fit the context and serve to reinforce the truth that believers who remain faithful will participate in Christ’s victory and rule. But, Jesus will identify himself as “the bright morning star” in Revelation 22:16. It is possible, then, that this is a way of Jesus promising to give himself, his presence, to those who overcome. If this is the case, the sequence is reminiscent of Exodus 33. In Exodus 33 YHWH indicates that he will give Israel victory over the nations that occupy the Promised Land; but, due to Israel’s “stiff-neckedness”, God says he will not go with the people. Moses intercedes on behalf of Israel, reminding God that his presence is what makes the nation of Israel unique and shows that the people have found favor with God. God listens to Moses’ plea and promises to give them victory and continue to bless Israel with his presence. If the “morning star” is a reference to Jesus, then Jesus is saying the overcomers will be granted victory over the nations and blessed with his abiding presence.