When Your Faith is On Trial
Studies in the Book of Revelation
Dr. Jim Denison
Thyatira was located 45 miles due east of Pergamum. Jesus wrote his longest letter to the smallest of the seven cities, proof of the significance of the issues confronting his followers there. Her ruins today are not remarkable, but her challenge to Christian fidelity was of vital importance.
Thyatira possessed strategic military significance. It lay at the mouth of a long valley connecting the Hermus and Caicus rivers. Enemies of the empire would have to pass by Thyatira on their way to attack Pergamum. And so the city would defend the capitol of the region, and at least delay attackers until the main city was ready.
The city was not a center of religious importance. She housed temples to Artemis and Apollo, but they were not famous. Neither did she possess a special center for emperor worship. She did own the shrine of Sambathe, a kind of ancient fortune-teller whom many came to consult for guidance.
Her chief importance was as a commercial center. The roads traveling through Thyatira brought to her doors the commerce of half the world. The city was known for its linen, apparel, leather work, and tanning. It was also a great center for wool trade and the dye industry. The city was especially noted for its production of purple cloth (from the madder root, which grew abundantly in the region). It is no surprise that Lydia, a “dealer in purple cloth,” came from Thyatira (Acts 16.14).
Labor unions were important in Thyatira, and the city possessed more of them than any other town in the region. This is where the problem Jesus addresses originated. No merchants or craftsmen in Thyatira could prosper unless they joined a guild or trade union.
Each trade union had its own patron god. Whenever the union members met, they shared a common meal which began and ended with a wine offering to this god. The meat at the meal would usually be from an animal sacrificed to the pagan god as well. They would burn a few hairs from the animal on the altar and then barbecue the rest as their supper. After the meal, the meeting would often become a drunken orgy.
Now imagine being a Christian in Thyatira. If you refuse membership in your union, you will go bankrupt or worse. Your family could literally starve to death. But if you join your union, you must attend its mandatory meetings, where you will be required to eat the food and drink the wine offered to idols, and then to join in the corruption which follows.
The leader named “Jezebel”
To make matters even worse, there was a leader in the church at Thyatira seeking to convince members to make exactly this compromise–a woman whom Jesus assigns the name “Jezebel.” This person encouraged the believers to join the trade unions and participate in the activities, all the while maintaining their faith in Jesus.
The original Jezebel was the conniving daughter of the king of Sidon. She married King Ahab and became the queen of Israel (1 Kings 16.31). She soon brought Baal, Astarte, and other assorted pagan deities into her new kingdom, and led the people in their worship. She defiled the nation and earned an everlasting reputation for corruption. Now, at Thyatira, her first-century counterpart is doing the same thing.
We know that she “calls herself a prophetess,” an office of great influence (v. 20). A female prophet was not nearly as unusual in the first century as it is for us. Philip the evangelist had four unmarried daughters who prophesied (Acts 21.9); Luke speaks of Anna the prophetess (Luke 2.36), and Paul assumes that women will prophesy in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11.5).
The Old Testament describes Miriam, Huldah, and Deborah as prophetesses as well. In the New Testament context a prophetess would cite the inspiration and leading of the Holy Spirit in whatever she said. The fact that she could claim divine authority in encouraging compromise would be very alluring to these Christians.
Furthermore, this Jezebel may have had an even more influential position in the church, quite possibly as the pastor’s wife. The “angel” in Thyatira receives this letter (v. 18), and “angel” can signify the “messenger” or “preacher” of the church. “Woman” (v. 20) can be translated “wife.” In fact, some ancient manuscripts inserted “your” before the word, thus “your wife Jezebel.” It’s possible that this Jezebel is not only a prophetess herself, but married to the prophet of the church as well.
Her sin is simple: “By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (v. 20). She is misleading the followers of Jesus in Thyatira, encouraging them to compromise with the morality of their trade unions and culture.
She has been warned: “I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling” (v. 21). Perhaps Jesus has already sent earlier letters to the church, or preachers to address the situation, or simply the strong conviction of the Holy Spirit. But she has refused to repent of her compromising leadership and immorality.
So the consequences will be severe: “I will cast her on a bed of suffering” (v. 22a). Here Jesus could refer to the “beds” or banquet couches used at Thyatira in their idolatrous feasts, or he could be using a Jewish expression for becoming ill.
What’s more, “I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways” (v. 22b). Her followers may be committing adultery physically, or spiritually. Both lead to the same punishment: they will “suffer intensely.” This phrase translates a Greek idiom for the crushing stone which ground wheat into flour and grapes into wine.
In addition, “I will strike her children dead” (v. 23a). These could be the physical children of her sexual adultery, or more likely, the spiritual children of her moral compromise. The Greek is “kill with death,’ an idiom for pestilence (cf. Rev 6.8).