Friday, May 2, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 7

For the next few weeks I'll be posting on Revelation 2:1-3:22 - the Seven Letters to the Churches - out of my new book Living Apocalypse: A Revelation Reader and A Guide for the Perplexed.

The Letter to Thyatira (2:18-29)


Thyatira was the least known and least remarkable of all the cities in the letters. The city was rather plain, not having the visual splendor or character of the others. The words of the letter are addressed to a developing church in a growing city, neither of which had gained the prominence of Ephesus.

We learn from the ancient inscriptions that Thyatira was a manufacturing center comprising wool and garment workers, potters, dyers, tanners, and bronze smiths. From these inscriptions we also learn that trade guilds, or what we might today call trade unions, were set up for the craftspeople. These guilds played a major role in the life of the city.

Trade was so important to the Thyatirans that they even had their own god, Tyrimnos, who was a provider and advocate for the city trades. Some coins manufactured here had this god pictured on them. Tyrimnos is represented as grasping the emperor’s hand, while other coins celebrate the deification of the emperor Domitian’s son, portraying him seated on a globe surrounded by seven stars.

Because of such strong Roman influences, we again need to be aware of the activity of the imperial cult in this city. The Thyatiran Christians were exposed to an organized paganism which impinged on their lives in many ways.

John writes to assure them and to warn them about the dangers of succumbing to these influences. The words of the victorious Christ show he is the true patron of the church and its work. He is the ‘Son of God’ arrayed with notably very similar characteristics as the carefully refined metal produced in the furnaces of their city.

As we look at the letter in more detail, keep this introduction to the local context in mind as it will be helpful, even essential, to understanding the text. We will see that a raised awareness of environmental particulars provides a useful picture for relevant theological application that holds true for our own contexts and situations. Whenever we can have pertinent background information about a city, its people, and culture it will enhance and enrich our interpretation of the text.


(18) The title, ‘the Son of God’ appears here for the first and only time in the Apocalypse. The Son of God stands in stark contrast to the local deities and the Roman emperor. He is the crucified and risen One, the true and only Son of God. The eyes of blazing fire and the feet of burnished bronze no doubt carry local significance for the Thyatirans and at the same time leave no question as to whose words these are. This same description is used by John as he turns to see who is speaking to him in the first vision (see 1:12-16).

(19-20) The risen Christ is not unaware of the deeds of the Thyatirans. John notes there is more love, faith, service, and perseverance than there was previously. (This church then stands in contrast to Ephesus where the believers are told to do the things they did at first). However, there are some problems with the church. The teaching of the prophetess Jezebel is misleading believers. Consequently, this false teaching is similar to that of the Nicolaitans in the letter to Pergamum.

Jezebel of the Old Testament is the link. It was she who enticed many Israelites to the cult of Baal (1 Kings 18:4, 19). The parallel is, as Jezebel in the Old Testament misled the Israelites, this Jezebel in Thyatira is doing the same thing in the midst of the church. Often in these letters the greatest threat to believers is the threat from within. The contrast between untruth and truth is subtle, yet profound. A half-truth is usually more deceptive than an outright lie. Therefore, in our own day, whether it’s Greek philosophy, materialism, New Age, or some form of contemporary humanism, Christians must be aware that the threat is as real from inside as it is from outside the church.

(21) The woman representing Jezebel is a destructive influence who refuses to repent, implying that the prophetess has already been warned. She has been given time, but she has refused.

(22-23a) The result of the refusal to repent is impending judgement. She will be inflicted with suffering and her followers will suffer great tribulation unless they repent, literally, of her works. Her children will be killed, putting an end to her misleading seduction into a compromised Christianity.

Certainly, the Christians of Thyatira were in a difficult place. As I mentioned earlier, the trade unions were likely to have been a focal part of local life. There is some evidence for feasts or assemblies taking place in the city. These types of functions were probably where the pressure was put on to conform to various forms of idolatry or sexual immorality. I imagine many fraternities or organizations today are similar. Because of business reasons, if being a member of the ‘right’ organization is advantageous, many Christians might think, “Why not? It’s not really idolatrous or immoral to be involved in various initiation rites and besides, being a member of that social group is good for business.” We must be careful here not to compromise. Idolatry is a serious, although a not always evident, matter.

(23b) The judgement over Thyatira in verses 22-23a will not go unnoticed. All the churches will realize that it is Christ who searches the inner being and it is he who will give to each one according to his or her deeds (Jas. 2:14 ff; Rom. 2:3 ff).

(24-25) Christ now addresses those who have not compromised. No other burden will be placed on them. They are to hold onto what they have, a reference most likely to verse 19, until Christ’s return.

(26-29) Two things are to be given to those who overcome and do the works of Christ, as contrasted here to the works of Jezebel in verse 22.

First, those who overcome will be given authority over the nations. In support of this a loose quote from Psalm 2:8-9, a messianic Psalm is given, probably chosen because the objects ‘iron scepter’ and ‘pottery’ had local significance in the life of Thyatirans.

This is another central motif in the Apocalypse. Those who overcome will actually have the privilege of ruling with the conquering Christ. He has been given authority over the nations and his rule is an everlasting one that will continue from age to age.

Everyone who overcomes and does the work of God is now given authority in a similar way as the Messiah himself. The authority he has received—the authority that belongs to him and him only—is now to be shared with those who remain faithful to the end. The faithful not only share in Christ’s victory, but also in his never-ending rule. This is the first promise.

Second, those who overcome are given the morning star. This is another difficult symbol, much as the white stone in the previous letter. It may have had some local, even national significance in that the morning star was thought to represent Venus and was a symbol of sovereignty and victory. If it is used in this way it is further assurance that Christ, not Venus, is the victor and finally reigns over all, and this victory is also shared with and given to those who overcome (Rev. 22:16 shows Christ as morning star, or victor). This is the second promise.

What is given is important in this letter. First, we have Jezebel being given time to repent. Second, Christ gives to each according to their deeds. Third, in contrast to this, anyone who overcomes and does his works is given his authority and ultimate victory. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”